What is the American dream, exactly? Does anybody know? Must it involve instant TV celebrity and a spread in InStyle? Why is our storied national drive intrinsically linked to either sleep or fantasy? And the big question: Does the conviction that we're all entitled to live it ultimately help or harm us?
"American Dreamz," Paul Weitz's good-natured satire of pop, politics and our bloated sense of entitlement (arguably our biggest export) lampoons the great American disconnect from reality by locating the place where all these things intersect. Ultimately, the movie's heart, or at least its sense of boundaries, belongs to Hollywood, so it's not surprising that it ends up being harder on its crazed celebrity dreamers than on the inept commander in chief who tries to curry popular favor by jumping on their bandwagon.
Hugh Grant plays Martin Tweed, the slick, self-loathing host of a top-rated talent show called "American Dreamz." A barb-tongued meanie (when his girlfriend leaves him in the opening scene, he blurts, "You make me want to be a better person. And — I'm not a better person!"), Martin is the ideal purveyor of cynically engineered pop fantasies, wobbling precariously at the top of the entertainment heap. A few seasons in, his show has become an international juggernaut, prompting the chief of staff (Willem Dafoe) of the newly re-elected, low-approval-rated President Staton (Dennis Quaid) to offer the president as a guest judge on its finale.
As far as Martin is concerned, the president stands to gain more from the appearance than he does. What he does need, desperately, is human interest. The show's appeal depends on a carefully calibrated mix of pathos and pathological ambition, as he tells his producers (hilariously played by John Cho and Judy Greer), "and by human, I mean flawed, and by flawed, I mean freaks. Go get me some freaks."
Specifically, because not only is he not above inciting drama, he's all about it, he instructs them to find him an Arab and a Jew. ("How about an Arab who's also a Jew?" one of them chirps.) The task is made relatively easy by the worldwide popularity of the show, and a rapping rabbi is soon procured as is a starry-eyed Iraqi named Omer (Sam Golzari), who at the beginning of the movie finds himself having a hard time at a terrorist-training camp in Afghanistan, where he spends his days getting in the way and his nights perfecting his show-tune routines.
Desperate to get rid of him, his commanders ship him off to his wealthy cousins' house in Orange County, intending to call him into action never. From the moment he steps into their glossy McMansion, Omer is in heaven — even more so when he discovers that his flamboyant cousin Iqbal (Tony Yalda) has built himself a disco-era practice space in the basement, where he spends his days perfecting his audition for "American Dreamz." When the show's producers show up and find Omer trying out his moves (Iqbal is, as ever, at the mall), they know they've found their man. And when his commanders find out he's made the show, they know they've found their suicide bomber.
Grant's second coming as a rake and an egotist is the best thing to happen to his career since "Four Weddings and a Funeral." He is twice as enjoyable as the preening bad guy as he was as the bumbling good guy, and Weitz makes perfect use of the new persona. Nobody likes Martin, least of all himself — which not only makes him enormously empathetic, it adds a delightful unexpected dimension to his relationship with Sally Kendoo (Mandy Moore).
Sally is Martin's Mini-Me in Carrie Underwood form. A small-town girl from Padookie, Ohio, Sally since childhood has been plotting her path to stardom with the help of her passive-aggressive stage mother (Jennifer Coolidge). If the role is a familiar one, Moore infuses it with a rage-fueled intensity that transforms it into something revelatory. Like Martin, Sally is a deeply unhappy individual who channels all her anger into her singular ambition. She thinks nothing of dispensing with her loyal, loving and dim-bulbed boyfriend, William Williams (Chris Klein), when he gets in her way, then roping him back in when he reveals himself as a useful PR tool. Klein is reliably pathetic as the hapless innocent, a role he has perfected and perhaps exhausted. But Moore brings a surprising dimension to Sally, whose onstage lightness masks a serious dark streak.
There are many things to like about "American Dreamz," most notable of which is the relationship between Sally and Martin. The two meet anything but cute, and the relationship that develops — an attachment that springs from a mutual respect, horror and self-recognition — is as funny as it is weirdly affecting.
Quaid is hilarious as the nation's child-president, who picks up the newspapers for the first time in his fifth year of office and learns to his surprise that there are "three kinds of Iraqistanis," and that they not only don't like each other, they bear little resemblance to Dr. Octopus and Magneto, as he's been told. Marcia Gay Harden is eerily soothing as his happy-pill dispensing wife, and Dafoe is excellent as a sort of Karl Rove in Dick Cheney drag. Neither Weitz nor Quaid hold back in their allusions to a certain elected official who doesn't read the papers, believes that he's in office because "the Lord picked him," and may or may not have at one time worn an earpiece during a debate.
But ultimately, "American Dreamz" is an equal-opportunity lampooner, shrugging at a populace so distracted by trivia it spends its days cheerfully driving to the mall in combat-sized vehicles and practicing for its big break as bombs keep going off.
MPAA rating: Rated PG-13 for brief strong language and some sexual references
A Universal Pictures release. Writer-director Paul Weitz. Producers Rodney Liber, Andrew Miano. Director of photography Robert Elswit. Editor Myron Kerstein. Music by Stephen Trask. Running time: 1 ho