To quote “The Simpsons” (ask my friends, I do that a lot) when they lampooned Enron in their episode at Epcot Center, mmmm, now that’s good satire. “American Dreamz” looks like total fluff on the surface, the kind of thing that the Wayans brothers would do for a “Scary Movie” installment, were they still in charge of that franchise. Instead, it’s one of the funniest, most biting satires, both political and cultural, that you’re likely to see this year. It miraculously uses a terrorist sleeper cell as a subplot in a comedy, and you totally buy it. That doesn’t just take guts; it takes skill. And this movie’s got mad skills.
Hugh Grant plays Martin Tweed, the self-loathing but insanely rich and successful host of the talent show “American Dreamz.” In an attempt to keep the show’s ratings – and his sanity – intact, Martin instructs his handlers to find freaks, people who will keep the show from becoming boring or predictable. One of those “freaks” is Sally Kendoo (Mandy Moore), a part-time barmaid from rural Ohio with sizable talent and blind ambition. An unsuspecting contestant is Omer (Sam Golzari), who’s just come to the States to await a call from a sleeper cell that will never come (he’s an incompetent killer). The catch is that Omer is a big fan of show tunes, and when the producers of “American Dreamz” come looking for his cousin Iqbal, (a very funny Tony Yalda), who auditioned for the show, they find Omer, and instantly know that he is freak TV gold. Oh, and let us not forget Sally’s boyfriend William Williams (Chris Klein), who signs up for the Army after Sally dumps him, only to get shot and sent home on his first day in Iraq, and President Staton (Dennis Quaid), who has a mini-meltdown after winning a second term and is thrust onto “American Dreamz” as a guest judge by his Chief of Staff (Willem Dafoe) in a blatant attempt to boost Staton’s approval ratings. There’s much, much more to the story, but I’ve said too much already. And I haven’t even gotten to Seth Meyers as Sally’s agent and Jennifer Coolidge, a.k.a. Stifler’s Mom, as Sally’s mother.
The beauty of the movie is that in the wrong hands, this very easily could have been Shreked to death, where you take the easy joke at every opportunity and piss on everyone in the process. But writer/director Paul Weitz (“About a Boy,” “In Good Company,” “American Pie”) is smarter than that, and he spins the story in a way that the deeply flawed characters are not just redeemable but likable. Grant, who does a pitch-perfect Simon Cowell, is fun to watch despite his utterly artificial existence, and Moore somehow humanizes Sally, no mean feat given her callous treatment of William (the less you know, the better) and shameless desire to win by any means necessary. And for those who think that President Staton exists just to take a few swings at George W. Bush, well, you’re mostly right, but not exactly right. Quaid indeed does a pretty good Bush impression (and Marcia Gay Harden in turn does a pretty good Laura Bush, hair and everything), but in the end, dammit, even Dubya haters will like him, too. If that’s not a testament to good casting – who doesn’t like Dennis Quaid? – I don’t know what is.
Sitting to my left at “American Dreamz” was Bill Clark, resident BE heavy metal expert, founder of fromthebalcony.com, and avowed “American Idol” hater. He was laughing virtually in stereo with my “Idol”-loving wife, who some of you know as Buffybot. That’s high praise, right there, that a movie can take both lovers and haters of not only a TV show but our President – a polarizing figure if ever there was one – and please them all. Your wife/girlfriend/mistress will probably beg you to take them to see “American Dreamz,” and if you’re smart, you’ll “reluctantly” let them. But don’t blink, or you’ll miss “South Park” svengali Trey Parker as a “Dreamz” contestant.(4 / 5)
This originally ran April 21, 2006 on Bullz-Eye.com.