We’ve come a long way from Dr. Strangelove when softballs like Thank You for Smoking and V for Vendetta pose as political satire. Given his disregard for good taste in American Pie, Paul Weitz would seem up to the kind of Swiftian assaults the times call for. American Dreamz takes some good shots, develops some inspired absurdity, and takes on more targets than it knows what to do with. Unfortunately, like the pastry in Weitz’s first film, it proves warm, sweet, and sticky under its flaky crust.
The first scene seems to reprise About a Boy, with Hugh Grant playing another charming shit ill-treating his girlfriend. He’s Martin Tweed, the Simon Cowell of a hit TV show called American Dreamz, and he’s a master of manipulating the illusions, greed, vanity, and sadism of his huge audience. Of course he wants more, so he urges his staff to seek out freaks and stereotypes to appear on the show. By pitching to the mob’s sentimentality and prejudices, he whips up a WrestleMania-style frenzy.
TV people as soulless cynics? The idea was quaint when Network came out 30 years ago. How about ruthless show-biz wanna-bes? Mandy Moore brings pluck to the role of contestant Sally Kendoo, a small-town girl with a big-city edge whose ambitions outweigh her talents. With little remorse she dumps her beau, William Williams (Chris Klein), snatching him back when he returns wounded from Iraq and thus providing herself with the perfect sob story to win votes.
Again, hardly original, though both Grant and Moore have more fun than Aaron Eckhart in Smoking. And as in that movie, Weitz suggests that such people might run things better than the self-proclaimed idealists who are in charge. Just re-elected, President Staton (Dennis Quaid) tries something new: reading a newspaper. The sudden assault of facts and points of view paralyzes him, much to the dismay of his chief of staff (Willem Dafoe).
What elevates this scenario above an episode of the defunct series That’s My Bush is Dafoe: he’s shocking, at least to look at. He resembles an unholy fusion of Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, and Karl Rove. Most disturbing, he’s a nice guy. So is the president, and if the two listened more to the first lady (Marcia Gay Harden), maybe the world’s problems might sort themselves out. Fair enough — our leaders might well be good people. But Weitz fails to show, satirically or otherwise, how nice guys can be responsible for such horrible consequences. He does best of all with Omer (Sam Golzari), that lovably bumbling Muslim terrorist with a secret passion for show tunes. Omer is assigned to a sleeper cell in Los Angeles and there is scouted by Tweed’s people; that leads to a showdown between reality TV and terrorism that owes a lot to Paddy Chayefsky. Had Weitz focused more on Omer, he might have reached Kubrickian heights — Omer’s version of “My Way,” for example, rivals that of both Sinatra and Sid Vicious. Like Staton, Omer reflects the innocence that is mistaken for virtue, the nightmares disguised as dreams.