By Jeffrey M. Anderson
American films do not usually make a good home for satire. The problem is that satire depends on characters acting outrageously, mirroring and exaggerating thoughts and activities that are fairly close to home.
Filmmakers can get away with satire if they allow their characters to be inherently unlikable, as in the recent films Bulworth (1998), Dick (1999), Best in Show (2000) and the current Thank You for Smoking.
But there are subtle tricks to guide an audience into liking your main character. In Bulworth, we root for Warren Beatty's character because he finds true love and a new lease on life, and we hope that the hit man hot on his trail won't kill him.
In Thank You for Smoking, many of the supporting characters are painted as even sneakier and more annoyingly pompous than the hero (played by Aaron Eckhart). Not to mention that he's a good father that spends time with his son.
Now writer/director Paul Weitz (American Pie, About a Boy) hits us with his new film American Dreamz. All wrapped up in one gleaming package, it satirizes the incompetence of the White House, the folly of the "war on terror" and the idiocy of TV's "American Idol."
It helps that these gigantic, ever-present topics sit like elephants squarely in the public eye. These are subjects that desperately need ridicule, even though throwing barbs at them is like attacking the broad side of a barn.
The catch is that Weitz also wants us to like his characters. He finds ways to make even the stupidest and most vicious likeable.
It all begins when President Staton (Dennis Quaid) wakes up one morning and decides, for the first time, to read the newspaper. He becomes entranced by the possibilities of an outside world, and all the things he never knew went on.
At the same time, the acerbic host of TV's idiotic talent contest "American Dreamz," Martin Tweed (Hugh Grant), is about to whore himself out for another season, but not without some fresh ideas. This time, he demands to have an Arab represented on the show.
Lucky for him, a former terrorist, Omer (Sam Golzari), has just been unceremoniously dumped from his squad for sheer incompetence and because of his love of American show tunes. He is sent to the U.S. to live with family and to await orders.
Finally, the future "American Dreamz" winner, Sally Kendoo (Mandy Moore), carefully and ruthlessly prepares for her future in showbiz. She even clings disgustedly to her dull ex-boyfriend (Chris Klein), a wounded Iraq war veteran (he is shot about 20 minutes after landing there).
Eventually, the Vice President (Willem Dafoe, made up to look like Cheney), worries about losing his stranglehold on the U.S. and works to get the President back under control. They give him "happy pills" and make him wear an earpiece receiver when speaking in public.
One of the President's new duties will be to make a guest appearance on "American Dreamz." And from there, it's pretty easy to guess how our little chess pieces will end up in the same corner.
Weitz spends a good deal of time humanizing these various characters. Amazingly, even the President starts to look like a nice enough fella. It helps that his spaced-out, but caring wife (the wonderful Marcia Gay Harden) still looks out for him; these two share some very sweet moments.
As for the ultra-cynical show biz hounds Sally and Martin, Weitz lets us know just how sad and lonely they really are under their spiky fa�ades.
Sadly, the film has too wide a canvas for every character to survive scrutiny. Omer's American family comes across as a bunch of spoiled stereotypes (especially the gay cousin who helps with Omer's TV image).
Every other marginal character, such as Sally's mom (Jennifer Coolidge), fares about the same. But most annoying of all is Klein as Sally's milquetoast boyfriend. A veteran of the American Pie films, Klein is more a sight gag than an actor, and he is given far too much to do.
Dafoe's veep is the movie's one sure-fire villain. He could get hit by a truck and the audience would laugh.
Weitz spends most of his energy on these characters, corralling them and guiding them toward his conclusion. As a result, American Dreamz rolls along with an evenly-lit, evenly-edited rhythm. The cinematography is by Robert Elswit, whose striking recent work includes Punch-Drunk Love and Good Night, and Good Luck, and yet, here his stamp is nowhere to be seen.
Nevertheless, American Dreamz succeeds, partially because it feels so good to see these parade floats skewered and deflated.
But the real triumph here is that Weitz bothers to take aim at all. Since 9/11, a constant state of fear has made certain items off limits for questioning or discussion, no matter how obvious or ludicrous.
In the 1970s, ruthless muckrakers would have taken the president to task for any number of things, but nowadays, no one makes a peep.
Hopefully, America is thirsty for Weitz's brand of chutzpah. If only he had taken the final step and instead of surrounding himself with likeable characters, had made his march determined, and alone.