"American Dreamz" an audaciously entertaining mess

by Eric Melin on April 21, 2006

in Print Reviews

Star ratings (or “rock fist” ratings!) suck. They accompany movie reviews for quick reference, so that actually reading the review isn’t necessary to know what the critic thought of the picture.

“Did you see Melin’s review of ‘American Dreamz’?”

“Yeah, he gave it two and a half stars; a minor rock fist up.”

Some people would get the idea that this is a recommendation, but it is always better to read the full article. Let me explain.

I liked you better in “In Good Company.”

“American Dreamz” is a broad socio-political satire from Paul Weitz, the writer/director of the underrated modern romantic comedies “About a Boy” and “In Good Company.” What reviewers seem to be referencing in their reviews of this film in particular, however, is that Weitz also co-directed the teen sex romp “American Pie.” That’s because the first two films mentioned relied on their sincerity (which this film has almost none of), while the latter relied on its bawdy, over-the-top tone. That, and it’s easier to write off “American Dreamz” by saying it was directed by the guy who did “American Pie.”

The truth is, there’s more to “American Dreamz” than that. And, unfortunately, less.

The movie is set in an all too familiar parallel universe where the President of the United States (Dennis Quaid) has just been narrowly re-elected to a second term, but has low poll approval. Although the simple-minded oaf is a non-reader, he wakes up the morning after winning, and decides to read the newspaper. Much to the chagrin of his manipulative chief-of-staff (Willem Dafoe, in outrageously silly Karl Rove/Dick Cheney make-up), the President stays in bed for three weeks, devouring knowledge from such far away places as Canada and the U.K.

I wonder if lovable rube will wise up and take the strings from the scheming puppeteer?

All of this is good clean fun, I suppose, but too often it veers into insulting obviousness. Like Dafoe, Marcia Gay Harden is another dead ringer look-alike, a Laura Bush-y First Lady, who is the “woman behind the man.” It’s this overt quality that brings to mind the visual puniness of David Zucker (“The Naked Gun,” “Airplane!”) movies. Other jokes are simply easy and childish. For example, when the Prez complains that his staff may not be telling him the whole story at his briefing meetings, Dafoe skirts the issue and suggests that he could possibly remove the cartoons.

From the moment Hugh Grant appears as Martin Tweed, a self-obssessed British TV host of America’s hottest singing competetion, Weitz’s movie is on more solid footing. Tweed knows he’s famous for essentially nothing, and his self-loathing is matched only by his desperation to stay on top. When an audition tape featuring ambitious young Southern belle Sally Kendoo (Mandy Moore) comes in, Tweed is attracted not by her talent, but by her shameless eagerness to exploit her Iraq War-injured boyfriend (Chris Klein) for her own gain. Ironically, Sally and Martin’s ability to admit and wallow their shallowness becomes a bonding point.

Stupid Spice and Scary Spice

Unlike the sloppy political jabs, the “American Idol” parody stuff is flat-out hilarious. From the opening round insult-a-thon to the unabashed product placement, nothing is left unskewered. When it is announced that the President will appear as a judge on the top-rated show, it’s a testament to Weitz’s perceptiveness that this development is really not that hard to believe. Hasn’t the political process become a bit like a scripted TV reality show anyway?

A subplot featuring an Iraqi citizen whose mother was killed by American bombs is handled less skillfully. This is already a pretty heavy subject with complicated issues. To simplify it for the sake of some fish-out-of-water laughs and a vague message is pretty irresponsible. But the sheer audacity with which these subjects are punctured is admirable, and often times very funny.

What still surprises me is how mean-spirited it all is. “American Dreamz” is a mess. There are an almost equal amount of jokes that fail as there are laugh-out-loud funny ones. One minute it is a cruel satire, and the next, it soft-peddles a kind of Rodney King-“Can’t we all just get along?” mentality. That said, give the movie credit for recognizing (and saying aloud) that the problems in the Middle East will “never, ever, ever, ever, ever” be solved. And Chris Klein has the funniest line I’ve heard in any movie this year. After hearing that, I laughed and laughed, then chuckled quietly to myself for the rest of the film.

So, back to the star rating.

While two and a half stars may seem like a recommendation, this movie is not for everybody. I found the film fascinating in both its triumphs and failings. Modern film theory says that the true “meaning” of a film lies between the filmmaker’s intention and our interpretation. To that respect, I see what I think “American Dreamz” could have been, combined with what’s actually onscreen, and I’m flabbergasted. I’m also looking forward to seeing this audaciously entertaining mess again.

Eric is the Editor-in-Chief of Scene-Stealers.com and writes the Screen Stealers column for The Pitch. He’s President of the KCFCC, and drummer for The Dead Girls and Ultimate Fakebook. He is also Air Guitar World Champion Mean Melin. Eric goes to 11. Follow him at:

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