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Watching

Video Digest: April 24, 2006

"In fact, Weitz has sympathy for all his characters--the scheming Sally, the self-loathing Tweed, even the terrorists, who turn out to be as riveted to cheap musical diversion as we are."

Last year, director Paul Weitz found himself torn between two dramas: the Iraq war and American Idol. It’s a disconnect familiar to many of us with a conscience and a television set—thousands of soldiers have died, but holy crap, Mandisa should not have been voted off!—and it rankled Weitz so much he made a movie about it.

American Dreamz begins the day the president wins re-election. Played by Dennis Quaid, President Staton is the liberal nightmare-fantasy of Bush: a dimwitted, slack-jawed man-child controlled by powerful men, in this case a conniving chief of staff (Willem Dafoe). As a character, Staton is a compilation of gags too broad for The Daily Show, which left me in the unfamiliar position of wanting to defend our prez: Hey, he’s bad, but he’s not that bad. Regardless, the jokes aren’t that good. Weitz has said he wrote the screenplay in three weeks, and it shows. There’s too many throwaways for every one that sticks, which is surprising. Say what you will about the man who brought us American Pie, but he should know a good gag. Still, as he showed in About a Boy and In Good Company, Weitz has a way with compassionate comic narratives, which American Dreamz turns out to be.

The story centers on the network mega-hit American Dreamz, hosted by smarmy Englishman Martin Tweed (Hugh Grant). Vying for the win are two vastly different contestants: Sally Kendoo (Mandy Moore), a small-town sweetheart elbowing her way to the top, and Omer (Sam Golzari), a bumbling terrorist who loves showtunes. I expected to cringe through the “wacky terrorist” subplot, but it’s actually the funniest and most endearing, as Omer tries to reconcile his hatred of American foreign policy with his real connection to American people and pop culture. His cousin Iqbal (Tony Yalda) gets the most laughs as a flouncy American Dreamz fanatic whose ridiculous musical aspirations mirror the naive spirit that fuels phenomena like American Idol. As much as Weitz (or we) may want to make fun of the fame-hungry hacks clamoring to get on the show, he still sees something distinctly American about their relentless hope. In fact, Weitz has sympathy for all his characters—the scheming Sally, the self-loathing Tweed, even the terrorists, who turn out to be as riveted to cheap musical diversion as we are. As the story evolves, it grows wackier, sillier, and in many ways, more enjoyable. American Dreamz may be a frustrating film for all that it’s not—i.e., a biting satire, an outrageous comedy. It’s more like a little pop culture fantasia about what hypothetical famous people would do if they were hypothetically brought together in one hypothetical climax, and viewed as such, it’s not bad. Those expecting a skewering of our modern era, however, will be left demanding a recount.

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