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"A sociopolitical satire with a lot of bark, but not enough bite."
"Two improbable supporting characters outshine everyone else."
"The detachment from reality begins and ends with the dream."
American Dreamz  

Cast

Martin Tweed: Hugh Grant
President Staton: Dennis Quaid
Sally Kendoo: Mandy Moore
Chief of Staff: Willem Dafoe
First Lady Staton: Marcia Gay Harden
William Williams: Chris Klein
Martha Kendoo: Jennifer Coolidge
Omer: Sam Golzari INTERVIEW
Review April 2006

The American dream isn't what it used to be. And it's taken a dramatically different turn in writer/director Paul Weitz's latest comedy, "American Dreamz," taking aim at both pop culture and the Presidency. In the film, everyone is artificially obsessed with dreams, dreams that are unrealistic, unfulfilled, or unattainable. Everyone from the President, who is re-elected and detached from the real world, to a string of reality show contestants that only seek fame and fortune. Their worlds all converge on the stage of a hit reality series, "American Dreamz," an American Idol knock off hosted by the snooty Martin Tweed. Of most significance, the film juxtaposes the common consensus about the American dream itself, by suggesting that the pursuit of such dreams can lead to madness, heartache, and confusion. Conceptually, the film succeeds, but cohesively, it fails. Directed by Paul Weitz, whose previous works include "About a Boy," "American Pie," and "In Good Company," "American Dreamz" is a sociopolitical satire with a lot of bark, but not enough bite.

The so-called American "Dreamz" start at the top. After winning an exhausting re-election, newly elected President Staton is having a nervous breakdown. And for the first time in four years, he begins to see the world differently, reading newspapers and other periodicals while remaining sequestered in his bedroom. In other words, his sense of black and white has become mired in a shade of gray and uncertainty. And in an effort to get him back on course and back in the limelight, the President's Chief of Staff books Staton as a guest judge on the country's top rated show - a reality musical competition called "American Dreamz." Meanwhile, the producer and star of the show, Martin Tweed, begrudgingly prepares for the new season. A self loathing Simon Cowell clone, Tweed insists on getting a new crop of interesting talent this year, a crop that includes a displaced Arab terrorist named Omer, Hasidic Jewish rapper Sholem, and Midwestern darling, Sally Kendoo.

At every step of the way, someone is realizing their dream at the expense of someone who is losing their dream. For instance, Omer is accidentally discovered and asked on the show while his cousin, Iqbal, who really wants on the show, is rejected. And Sally, who has been preparing for stardom all her life, dumps her boyfriend the minute her opportunity comes knocking. Likewise, for every dream that comes true, there are consequences. Omer is confronted by his terrorist cell leader and asked to do the unthinkable and Sally's boyfriend William, who wants nothing more than to be with her, heads down a path of self-destruction. All the while, America votes and watches the show in record numbers. In particular, the season finale, where an American President looks to reclaim his celebrity while one of the contestants hopes to earn their very own celebrity.

If there's one thing writer/director Paul Weitz definitely knows, it's comedy and satire. In 1999, he directed the teenage sex romp, "American Pie," following the misadventures of Jim Levenstein and his quest to lose his virginity by prom night. Then, in 2001, he directed "Down to Earth," starring Chris Rock as an aspiring comic who loses his life only to be reincarnated as an unlikable, wealthy, white businessman. And after that, he decided to try writing, adapting the Nick Hornby novel, "About a Boy." The film starred Hugh Grant as an irresponsible Londoner whose life is changed by a young boy and and went on to earn Weitz an Academy Award nomination. Even more recently was "In Good Company," featuring Dennis Quaid as an aging advertising executive whose boss is replaced by a young, twenty something college graduate intent on dating his daughter. Now, many of these social situations and actors come together for "American Dreamz," a bitter comedy that pushes the envelope of even further, making absolutely no mistake about whom and what it is attacking.

Famous satirist Jonathan Swift once said, "Satire is a sort of glass, wherein beholders generally discover everybody's face but their own." And in "American Dreamz," we certainly discover each face, each political and social target. There's President Bush, represented by President Staton, who appears as a political puppet, operating without knowledge of public opinion or care, constantly manipulated by those around him. There's Simon Cowell, appearing as Martin Tweed, a self indulgent, egotistical, womanizer who despises the very beast that has made him famous. And hidden beneath the surface, there's the face of the political system, a system that has become more and more like reality television itself, whereby the popular candidates who say the right things and reach the broadest audiences win the big show. Because "American Dreamz" has these characteristics, because it is able to criticize by weighing the good and the bad, and because it is able to make itself repulsive for change's sake, it succeeds as a sociopolitical satire.

Even the dreams themselves are satirized. After all, in "American Dreamz," all of the characters know what they want and will do whatever it takes to get there. But oddly enough, this is a film where two improbable supporting characters outshine everyone else. The characters are Omer and William Williams, portrayed with great warmth and affability by Sam Golzari and Chris Klein. Omer and William are the most genuine, the most vulnerable, and the most apt to change. And they are both presented with an ultimatum that threatens their very livelihood, forcing them to re-evaluate, imploring them to take action. Unlike Sally, Martin, or President Staton, whose existence is primarily static, i.e. Sally is a sociopath, Martin is despicable, and the President is clueless, Omer and William experience the most growth and demonstrate the most versatility.

Regretfully, however, the film plays out like an overextended preview. In fact, the trailer for "American Dreamz" unveils every key plot point, is filled with action, energy, and music, and has just enough satire and comedy to make it look enticing. But after the first fifteen minutes, it becomes apparent that the trailer was simply a decorative fa?ade, highlighting the good and masking the inconsequential. In particular, the emphasis on satire is so great that the blending of story elements and arcs becomes irrelevant, disconnected, and awkward. And the jabs about politics and pop culture become tired, without context or a real story to play into as when Martin Tweed decides to visit Sally Kendoo on a whim and share a nice ride in a Ferrari. Or when President Staton takes his earpiece out while on stage at "American Dreamz." Rather than saying something off the cuff, dimwitted, or sarcastic, he mumbles out a few words in apathy and indifference. And it's moments like these where the film fails to hit it out of the park.

Says Martin Tweed, "One can become quite detached from reality when one's famous." Even the President of the United States. Yet, for all the characters vying for fame and attention in "American Dreamz" (with a "z"), the detachment from reality begins and ends with the dream. Some are consumed by it, while others are inspired by it - an ironic twist on the American dream itself. But rather than explore the meaning or engage in healthy discussion, the film seems content to provoke, oftentimes maliciously, from a comfortable distance. And while the satire is clear and mostly constructive, the actors are able to deliver sarcasm with a straight face, and several of the performances are treated with affection, the story still feels neglected and dismembered. I know. It's just one person's opinion. Because in America, the theater lines are always open.



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