2 stars (out of four)
Democracy feeds the notion that we're all potential winners, provided we dream the right dream and flatten the competition. Yet John Donne was right: No man is an island, even if he just voted someone off it.
Writer-director Paul Weitz has a couple of ripe targets in his sights with "American Dreamz." One of them is the fearsome, awesome success of "American Idol" and its contemporary ilk, starting with "Survivor" and ending who knows where, dependent on the reality-TV notion of the world as popularity contest. The other target is the current administration, run by someone whose demeanor often suggests he won the gig on a rigged edition of "Major Bowes' Original Amateur Hour."
This sprawling but curiously mild social satire finds U.S. President Staton (Dennis Quaid) slipping in the polls. On the advice of his weaselly chief of staff (Willem Dafoe) he agrees to a one-shot appearance as guest judge on "American Dreamz," the nation's No. 1 talent showcase, hosted by an oil slick named Martin Tweed (Hugh Grant).
It's not a bad premise, and if you don't like it, Weitz has a few others. "American Dreamz"--that's "dreams with a z," according to the lyrics to the show's achingly sincere theme song--also follows the fortunes of a reluctant Al Qaeda -trained terrorist (Sam Golzari) obsessed with Broadway show tunes who ends up a finalist. His fiercest competitor is a small-town Britney Spears clone, Sally Kendoo (Mandy Moore), whose determination to conquer hearts and minds burns as brightly as the love of her dim fiance (Chris Klein).
For a while "American Dreamz" keeps you guessing, at least regarding how mean it's going to get with its left hooks. The president we see is a dolt who, early in the picture, decides he's going to read a newspaper for once in his insulated life. "What's with the paper?" queries Dafoe's chief of staff, made up with a bald pate to resemble a skinny Dick Cheney. "New puppy?"
After boning up on the world in all its distressing real-world ambiguities, Quaid's president dissolves into a puddle of stasis and starts hiding out in his jammies, refusing any and all public appearances. Only a guest spot on "American Dreamz" can correct his slide in the polls. Grant's character, meantime, is experiencing his own slide into self-loathing. In the opening scene Tweed, having received the latest encouraging ratings, tells his girlfriend to clear out. "You make me want to be a better person," he says, with quiet resentment. "And I'm not a better person."
Weitz wrote and directed the excellent film adaptation of Nick Hornby's "About a Boy" (2002) as well as the engaging original script "In Good Company" (2004). He knows how to deliver characters and behavior, as well as a little something about the way we live. His best work comes with plenty of breathing room. But "American Dreamz" is too busy and plotty to afford much of that. The characters end up competing for screen time.
At heart Weitz doesn't really want to stick it to anyone with "American Dreamz." Geniality, in this context, isn't much of a virtue. Weitz struggles with dueling impulses here, one in the direction of trenchant topicality--the climax involves a suicide bomber and the specter of presidential assassination--and the other in the direction of something somebody in this "American Idol" culture might actually pay to see.
The cast does what it can to make sense of warring impulses, though not everybody seems to be acting in the same film. Quaid's president tends to stick to one (broad) key, while Moore's Sally works more subtly in a variety of others. (At one point Sally tells the smitten Tweed, a fellow egotist, that she's "not physically attracted to other people.") Grant, playing a variation on Simon Cowell, resident meanie on "American Idol" and its inspiration, Britain's "Pop Idol," does what's required with seedy panache. Yet the characterization, both as written and acted, lacks a spark. It's as if Grant, who was terrific in Weitz's "About a Boy," got done moussing his tufty hair for the role and called it a day.
The one who comes off best is Jennifer Coolidge, who has a few scenes as Sally's mom. Coolidge, whose Valley Girl delivery always seems slightly at odds with her aging-vamp persona, can get the best kind of laugh on the simplest sort of exposition by top-spinning the punchline just so. What planet is this woman from? Coolidge always seems to be tuned to a wavelength unlike that of her fellow Earthlings , yet the results tend to be reliably good for the movie at hand, even an ambitious misfire like "American Dreamz."
Directed and written by Paul Weitz; cinematography by Robert Elswit; edited by Myron Kerstein; production design by William Arnold; music by Stephen Trask; produced by Weitz, Rodney Liber and Andrew Miano. A Universal Pictures release; opens Friday. Running time: 1:47. MPAA rating: PG-13 (for brief strong language and some sexual references).
Martin Tweed - Hugh Grant
President Staton - Dennis Quaid
Sally Kendoo - Mandy Moore
Chief of staff - Willem Dafoe
William Williams - Chris Klein
Martha Kendoo - Jennifer CoolidgeCopyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times