What do you give the country that has everything? Knowing it's the thought that counts, writer-director Paul Weitz gives American Dreamz, an extroverted "celebration" (i.e. satire) of our overfed country of more than plenty. To take his whacks at modern American culture and influence, Weitz develops three basic storylines, destined to intersect in the end: the goings-on surrounding an American Idol-type hit TV show, an emotional crisis in the White House, and the mission of a Middle-Eastern terrorist transplanted to Hollywood.
Hugh Grant—who seems only to get funnier with age—puts on a marbly, working-class accent to play Martin Tweed, the narcissistic, Simon Cowell-esque host of the show. After dumping his squeeze of a year ("You make me feel like being a better person. And I'm not a better person. I'm me."), womanizer Tweed finds himself drawn to sexy young contestant Sally Kendoo (Mandy Moore), who has a can-do attitude: can dump her thick-skulled boyfriend (Chris Klein), can take him back for show once he's an Iraq War vet, can do whatever it takes to win.
Meanwhile, Dennis Quaid's President (who looks and sounds an awful lot like our current Commander-in-Chief) decides he wants to be more involved in his administration, much to the chagrin of his First Lady (Marcia Gay Harden) and Vice-President (Willem Dafoe, made up as Dick Cheney). "I'm going to read the newspaper," he announces with pride, but the more he reads (Benjamin Barber's Jihad vs. McWorld and—gasp!—even Canadian newspapers), black and white begin to turn "gray-ish."
Tweed's "American Dreamz" producers, played by Judy Greer and John Cho, dutifully round up "human" contestants to compete against Sally ("By human, I mean 'flawed,'" explains Tweed, "and by 'flawed,' I mean 'freaks.'"). In the freak parade that follows, Weitz goes for easy laughs (a hip-hop Hasidic Jew with "bitches" is just lazy writing) and takes several missteps. One of the contestants is a sleeper terrorist: sweet, show-tune-loving Omer (Sam Golzari). Happily ensconsed with American relatives (including a domestic goddess played by Shohreh Aghdashloo), Omer is more interested in winning the show than blowing it up, but the goofy-ization of terrorists is Weitz's least convincing feint.
Yes, Weitz's targets are easy ones, and a distinct feeling that he's softening his blows keeps American Dreamz from satiric brilliance. But the central conceit of skewering a populace that votes more avidly for a reality show than its own president is a worthy one, and Weitz does attend to some ideas by use of his crazy quilt of characters. All of the "winners" in the story have ambitious advisors pressing them, and living through them: the President, with his two "wives"; Sally, with her stage mom (Jennifer Coolidge) and agent (Seth Meyers); and Omer, with his terrorist backers and "American Dreamz" coach-diva, his gay cousin Iqbal (Tony Yalda).
Naturally, all of the "successful" people are miserable, at least until they find each other. Tweed confesses to see himself in Sally: "It's revolting...and attractive." Falling in love-hate with ourselves, Weitz suggests, is a common American personality disorder, spawning eating disorders, insincerity as a matter of course, celebrity obsession, detachment from reality, and harmful dreams against ridiculous odds: the (White) House always wins.
In some ways, such as its large ensemble, American Dreamz is ambitious. Composer Stephen Trask, working witn Weitz, whips up some amusing songs and snippets, and cinematographer Robert Elswit (Good Night, and Good Luck.) contributes mightily to the garish, all-American look as Weitz puts his terrorists in purposefully fake beards, his Cheney stand-in in obvious bald cap and fat suit, and allows caked-on make-up and scarily toothy smiles.
By so over-indulging stereotypical expectations, Weitz attempts to implicate the viewer as much as himself, but Weitz's parting shot at the audience is probably too subtle to reach its target. Not everything works in this semi-audacious challenge to the American Dream, but Weitz consistently and amusingly hits the broad side of the barn.
[For Groucho's interview with Paul Weitz, click here.]