Click here to listen to the interview with Paul Weitz (8:06).
The carefully orchestrated public persona of politics and the carefully orchestrated “reality” of reality television come in for a timely comparison in Paul Weitz’s AMERICAN DREAMZ. Nothing and no one is off limits in this barely veiled shot at pop culture, world politics, and the allure of watching people very much like ourselves reach for a brass ring that may or may not be worth the effort.
We begin with Martin Tweed (Hugh Grant dark and brilliantly jaded), the snarky self-loathing host of “American Dreamz”, which has everyday folk compete for fame and possibly fortune by singing their hearts out and then enduring Tweed’s vitriolic assessment. Yet, Tweed, for all his personality faults, and they are legion, as the host of the world’s most popular show, may just be the most powerful man on the planet, as we learn when Vice President Sutter (Willem Dafoe looking appropriately like a crazed death’s head), courts him to allow the President to boost his poll numbers by appearing on the eponymous show.
The problem began back in Washington D.C. when dim bulb but affable President Staton (Dennis Quaid) gets a sudden hankering to read a newspaper. And then another. And then one from another country. This makes things complicated for Sutter, a personality challenged guy who has based his power-behind-the-throne game plan on having a puppet president who goes through the paces he sets for him and lets Sutter do all the thinking. Suddenly, public appearances become problematic and Staton has some questions that Sutter isn’t prepared to have posed, much less answered. Even the delicately medicated First Lady (Marcia Gay Hardin ladylike and oblivious) notices a change and generously offers to share some of her happy pills with her suddenly conflicted husband.
Meanwhile, somewhere in the Middle East, Omer (Sam Golzari) a terrorist trainee with a secret addiction to American show tunes is washing out of his program. In order to get him out of the way, and for reasons too complicated to go into here, his superiors send him to America, ostensibly as a sleeper agent, but in reality, there’s that word again, to get him as far away from them as they can manage. In this case with Omer’s fully assimilated cousins in Los Angeles, one of whom is maniacally obsessed with the most popular show in the world (even the terrorists TiVo it out there in the desert), “American Dreamz”.
Further meanwhile, in America’s heartland, Sally Kendoo (Mandy Moore), a girl of middling talent, but vaulting ambition and an uncanny ability to project corn-fed a wholesomeness that she doesn’t posses, has just been accepted to appear on “American Dreamz”, leaving her with the problem of dumping her adoring boyfriend William Williams (Chris Klein), the lovable lug who doesn’t fit in with her plans for that ci-mentioned fame, possible fortune, and the glitz of show biz.
Sleeper cells awaken, political game plans take a turn for the serious, and the political machinations to keep it on track are kid stuff compared the ones Tweed and company are implementing to groom Sally to make the final cut on the show. And all that is overshadowed by America’s latest craze, getting Omer-ized, thanks to the show’s unlikeliest underdog and the machinations of his sequin-soaked cousin.
Weitz has a clear-eyed vision of the zeitgeist and tosses it up on the screen with a deadpan veracity that is as unflinching as it is hilarious. From Tweed’s cynical contempt that forces his staff to bring him both an Arab and a Hassidic Jew to compete on his the show, to Sutter’s increasingly desperate measures designed to keep him in power for what he has convinced himself is the good of the planet, it’s just resonant enough with what is actually going on to seem plausible, terrifying, and absurd all at the same time. Tweaking it just enough so that official pronouncements, political or entertainment, will suffer even more of a credibility gap. This is black humor with just a spoonful of sugar to help the hemlock go down a little easier.
Quaid plays a buffoon who could end civilization as we know it with one wrong move, but he’s made him genuinely likable and agenda-less. Moore fearlessly makes her character just as unlikable as Grant’s, but with the sort of burning desire to fulfill her ego-driven fantasies that has an odd, almost engaging, purity about it, even as she helps stage manage a “spontaneous” moment on live television that will eventually leave sweet William with a broken heart. As for Golzari as Omer, he and his relatives, their getting caught up in the American Dream(z) may play as farce, but there’s a nice smackdown of consumerism in there. Shoreh Agdashloo, as Omer’s aunt, steals every scene she’s in with her impeccable comedic instincts, giving her character an effusive enthusiasm matched only by an uncanny ability to miss the big picture every time she looks around her excessively overdone mansion.
AMERICAN DREAMZ is first and foremost fun with a dynamite cast taking the material and running with it. Take it with or without the message, either way it’s a rollicking good time.