Like every other goddamn thing in a world limited in creative possibilities, the motion picture industry is generational. And in each generation, a particular genre starts out subtle and clever enough, as did Scream, Pulp Fiction, and When Harry Met Sally, in their respective genres. Unfortunately, in seeking to duplicate their successes, the next guy comes along and ratchets it up a bit, until eight or 10 years have passed and there’s nowhere left to go. In 1998, for instance, the Farrelly brothers introduced hair-gel ejaculate and zippered scrotum in There’s Something About Mary, and eight years later, we have that to thank for Date Movie, in which a cat takes a dump in the family lavatory before fucking a corpse, a bit that’s criminally unfunny in its inability to shock and leaves the next guy with absolutely nowhere left to go short of a necrophiliac menage a trois that none of us really cares to see.
And, unfortunately in a decade characterized by the buffoonery of our commander-in-chief and America’s obsession with reality television — and, by extension, the collective idiocy of our populace — it seems that our reality has actually already hit that tipping point. I mean, when your President exhibits the IQ of a grinder monkey and 40 million people tune in each week to watch amateur singers vie for stardom by whoring themselves out in Ford Escort bits, there is no repository for debasement left. People, our culture has gone as low as it can get and, short of simply holding up a mirror to ourselves (as Jon Stewart does so well four nights a week), there is nothing left to ridicule. We’re living the goddamn punchline, folks. We can’t get any fatter, stupider, or more oblivious than we already are, short of metaphorically pulling out a few cadavers and enjoying a one-night stand with the late Grandma Jones.
And that is the predicament that American Dreamz faces. Paul Weitz — by choosing George Bush and “American Idol,” (and by extension, a populace that put that man in office and plunks its collective [huge] ass down every Wednesday night to watch a half-hour results show that by rights should take no more than 45 seconds) — has backed himself into a creative corner from which there is no way to get out. I mean, c’mon! You can’t mock a man that does all the work for you; and you can’t ridicule a culture with its head so far up its own ass that it wouldn’t recognize it anyway.
And that is why American Dreamz falls so completely and utterly flat, because it’s not satire inasmuch as it’s a toned-down depiction of our reality; it’s a fictionalized CSPAN of the current American zeitgeist, only instead of holding that mirror up to us, it’s asking us to look in that mirror and pretend to see someone else’s reflection, some other culture, some other world in which we are not the participants. And if that sounds overly cynical, then I apologize, but I think it’s better than sugarcoating that cynicism with Hugh Grant’s witticisms, Mandy Moore’s embittered cutesiness, and a Middle-Eastern terrorist who loves motherfucking show tunes.
Anyway, where was I? Ah, yes. American Dreamz consists of several plot strands that struggle to converge on the event of the fictional “American Dreamz” finale. First, we have a dimwitted President (Dennis Quaid, who is quite good in the role) who — despite just being reelected — is battling with low poll numbers after he picks up a newspaper, has a crisis of consciousness, and disappears from the public eye for several weeks, leaving everyone to wonder if he’s just had a nervous breakdown. Meanwhile, Martin Tweed (Hugh Grant), the Simon Cowell-like host of “American Dreamz,” is a preening egotist dealing with his own self-loathing as he prepares to launch another season of the most popular show on television. He’s sick to death, apparently, of the same, bland Carrie Underwood-type contestants, so he latches onto Sally Kendoo (Mandy Moore), a cheerleading All-American Girl from Padookie, Ohio, who just so happens to have her own bouts of jaded self-loathing and is trying to cynically manipulate the system and transform her self-hatred into Clintonian ambition so that she can become the “American Dreamz” victor. When Tweed suggests that “one can become detached from reality when famous,” Sally is the type of girl to exclaim, “That sounds so cool.” And, for the record, Mandy Moore is actually pretty remarkable in a part that is somewhat self-parodying; I’m not sure who her agent is, but since her roles in “Entourage” and “Scrubs,” I’ve gained a newfound respect for her (How to Deal notwithstanding), as she attempts to distance herself from her A Walk to Remember-type characters and reposition herself as the anti-Duff.
Elsewhere, Tweed has also become fascinated with the William Hung-like novelty act, Omer (Sam Golzari), who just happens to be an Iraqi terrorist (by way of Orange County) with a penchant for Donnie and Marie and mass-consumed trendiness. After the President agrees (on the advice of the Cheneyesque chief of staff, played with craggy creepiness by Willem Dafoe) to guest-host the finale in an attempt to boost his poll numbers, it is Omer who is recruited by his terrorist cell to blow up the President in an act of campy martyrdom.
Unfortunately, American Dreamz never displays any of the subversiveness that the premise seems to promise. Besides being almost an entirely joke-free series of loosely held together scenes, it’s completely shallow and empty to boot. Indeed, the best that could be said for American Dreamz is that it’s satire for the simpletons who don’t really understand what satire means. I admit myself that I haven’t missed an episode of “American Idol” in a good five years, but I’m self-aware enough to recognize this as a character flaw, partially motivated by pressures to keep up with our contemporary culture and partially driven by my own guilty fondness for mind-numbing, vacuous television after a hard day watching mind-numbing, vacuous films. But American Dreamz is firmly targeted at those people who lack that brand of self-awareness, real-life Michael Scotts and David Brents, who offer up high-fives for little or no reason. And to those folks, writer/director/producer Paul Weitz seems to be saying, “Don’t laugh at yourself, man. Laugh at people just like you.” And I’m guessing they probably will.
Dustin Rowles is the publisher of Pajiba and managing partner of its parent company, which prefers to remain anonymous for reasons pertaining to public relations. He lives in Ithaca, New York. You may email him, or leave a comment below.
American Dreamz / Dustin Rowles
Film Reviews | May 15, 2006 | Comments ()