of idiots lands a little close
to home. By J. Hoberman
The vision of America as a vast, ratings-driven amateur hour is not without promise, but Weitz's movie, named for the most popular TV program in its parallel universe, is disappointingly soft in its individual characterizations. Indeed, as befits a director whose slice of the American pie has been predicated on a self-proclaimed "franchise" of gross-out comedies, the movie is mainly about tolerance. (He knows, firsthand, that the American people have it.)
American Dreamz is a movie with two world-historic players and a raft of wannabes. As the host of the eponymous TV show, Hugh Grant plays the role of the smarmy swine with convincing self-loathing. "I envy myself deeply," he tells his gorgeous girlfriend as she leaves him. Scouting new contestants, Grant actually finds one as callous as he an Ohio cheerleader (singer-actress Mandy Moore) who is as eager to exploit her Iraq-war-injured boyfriend as she is to mimic Christina Aguilera.
Moore's rival is a Chorus Line-loving Iraqi mujahid (avid newcomer Sam Golzari) sent to America by his disgusted comrades as a sleeper agent who will never be activated. Installed at the Beverly Hills home of his unsuspecting, bizarrely nouveau relatives, Golzari winds up on Grant's show after being mistaken for a queenie cousin who submitted an audition tape.
Meanwhile, Weitz's president of the United States (Dennis Quaid) recalls the sitcom protagonist of Comedy Central's That's My Bush! The conception of our maximum leader as a timid moron is hardly unsympathetic. "My mom wanted to show my dad any idiot could do it," Quaid explains to his sweetly medicated wife (Marcia Gay Harden), pushing the movie's talent-show premise into the political realm.
As one might expect, too much information precipitates a presidential breakdown; Quaid is shown surrounded by books, with Benjamin Barber's prophetic Jihad vs. McWorld prominently positioned for the camera. Barber's pre-9/11 formulation, "When Jihad and McWorld collide on television, there is little doubt about who wins," turns out to be the movie's article of faith and its deus ex machina. The president's controlling chief of staff (Willem Dafoe), a combination of Karl Rove and Dick Cheney, wants to restore the president's plunging poll numbers by positioning him as a guest judge on Grant's show. Meanwhile, the mujahideen who, like everyone else in this universe, are addicted to American TV catch Golzari's act and, realizing that he has a chance to go all the way, designate him their suicide contestant.
The eerie spectacle of a jihadist prancing through "The Impossible Dream" notwithstanding, American Dreamz should have been funnier. But it's not boring. After some midmovie doldrums, Weitz brings everything together for a suitably madcap finale involving multiple betrayals and malfunctions, a remote-controlled president, starstruck terrorists, and an on-air marriage proposal. It's not exactly The Manchurian Candidate, but Weitz detonates a suicide bomb as a punch line.
To make its point, however, American Dreamz could not possibly be insulting enough. (Compared to the genuinely illiberal Team America, this is a love pat despite Trey Parker's cameo as a doomed contestant, the longhaired "Rocky Man.") Ultimately, American Dreamz is less social satire than social realism the contestants are virtually indistinguishable from those on the real American Idol; the pols are as comfortingly stupid as we might wish them to be. The movie may have been made with the barest modicum of style and taste, but it is never as crass as its presumed audience.