A demonstration of how satire can booby-trap best intentions, Paul Weitz’s “American Dreamz” responds to a host of post-9/11 issues and pop-culture phenomena with frantic miscalculation. Combining a gallery of targets including President Bush, “American Idol,” the Iraq War and the overarching theme of a nation of citizens held in the thrall of phony dreams, pic and its ambitions are undermined by insistent cartoonishness and comic ineptitude. Tapping into the zeitgeist and a moviegoing public are far from the same thing, which inevitably flatlining B.O. and ancillary will bear out.
The idea of mixing and matching a recently re-elected incompetent prez (Dennis Quaid) with a reality show that pits aspiring pop singers against each other and is hosted by a smirking Brit (Hugh Grant) must have seemed terrif on the page. And with Weitz combining the stars of his previous two seriocomedies (Grant from “About a Boy” and Quaid from “In Good Company”), while channeling issues and pop obsessions, pic would appear to have more than enough meat for topical skewering.
Grant’s Martin Tweed impresses as a ratings barracuda who will let nothing get in his way of his show, “American Dreamz,” which tops the Nielsen charts. Three thousand miles away, Quaid’s President Staton is depressively bedridden despite his electoral victory, and there’s nothing the first lady (Marcia Gay Harden) or his intrusive chief of staff (Willem Dafoe) can do to shake him out it. Most disturbing to Dafoe’s micromanaging worrywart is that Staton suddenly wants to read the paper and learn about the world.
Perhaps if the pic had focused primarily on these two leading men of Hollywood and Washington, each powerful in different ways, a steadier comic tone could have been found. But Weitz is out for a panorama of American life, and spreads his attention to include Sally Kendoo (Mandy Moore), a young Midwestern gal with star ambitions; and Omer (Sam Golzari), a terrorist recruit with a taste for show tunes who’s assigned to a sleeper cell residing in the O.C.
“American Dreamz” gradually becomes four movies, all vying for attention, with the fourth being the most unwieldy. Adjusting to life with his upscale Arab-American relatives (including Shohreh Aghdashloo as the maternal Nazneen), Omer discovers Nazneen’s gay teen son Iqbal (Tony Yalda) shares a love for Broadway and desperately wants to be on Tweed’s show.
As the various narrative strands are messily curled, twisted and knotted, not only do the unlikely “American Dreamz” show finalists come down to Sally and Omer (ushering in some of the most starkly misjudged stereotypes of Arab characters in any recent Hollywood movie), but Staton wishes to serve as a guest judge on the season finale — even as Omer’s cell plans to kill him on the studio set.
Billy Wilder may have been able to make sense of this, but the twin challenges of taking cheeky swipes at such difficult and horrific issues as domestic terrorism while juggling a vast array of types overwhelms Weitz’s better sensibilities.
Comic moments fall flat even as most of the cast emerges from the confusion quite respectably. Grant has seldom been more dislikable, yet it’s this desire to smudge his own carefully built persona that makes the perf interesting. Quaid’s Bushlike Staton is a lonely and confused man facing the limits of his own view of the world. Moore’s is a pitch-perfect study of a woman for whom a reality show is reality.
A bald-pated Dafoe cleverly fuses Dick Cheney and Karl Rove as he scampers about the White House bedroom (the Oval Office is never seen), and Harden, with little to do, suggests a caring Laura Bush. Coolidge, Aghdashloo and Greer are wasted in underwritten roles. Arab activists eyeing stereotypes in Yank pop culture will have a field day with perfs of Mideast characters.
Production package is surprisingly average, given the talents of d.p. Robert Elswit, composer Stephen Trask and production designer William Arnold. In what may be a nod to topical ’70s filmmaking, Elswit opts for a flashing technique that recalls vintage Vilmos Zsigmond.