Many of us have an American Dream: to go to the movies and laugh. The new comedy American Dreamz will fulfill that fantasy for some people. Imagine George W. Bush in the White House … and … he’s … reading … the Guardian. Did you laugh? You have found your movie. But wait, there’s a consolation round. Do you like effeminate Arab teenagers who long to sing show tunes? Then American Dreamz is also for you. It’s a healthy dollop of Bush-bashing combined with a send-up of American Idol.
The movie was written and directed by Paul Weitz, who has spent the seven years since giving the world American Pie atoning for his cultural sins. Weitz and his brother, with an assist from Nick Hornby, directed a terrific manhood movie, About a Boy, and, more recently, he’s written those pointed plays about the dangers of success and the hollowness of fame that successful people like to write. As a political statement, American Dreamz is overly didactic and liberal in a read-too-many-blogs sort of way (SmirkingChimp.com, anyone?). President Bush, with his relentless, calculated simplicity, turns our satirists into heavy-handed hacks.
The movie can be roughly divided into three parts. First, there are scenes in the White House, where President Staton (Dennis Quaid) wakes up on the morning of his successful re-election wanting to read a newspaper, much to the dismay of his wife (Marcia Gay Harden) and adviser (Willem Dafoe). Next, we’re taken to the town of Padookie, Ohio, where the local karaoke queen (Mandy Moore) plots her way to stardom on the American Idol-esqueshow American Dreamz. Her mercenary attitude catches the eye of the show’s jaded producer and host (Hugh Grant, who else?). Finally, there’s Omer, a sweet-faced Arab boy (Sam Golzari), who recently arrived in the United States from a terrorist training camp and gets picked as a contestant. All these elements collide when President Staton, in the hope of boosting his approval ratings, agrees to become a guest judge on the show.
How much will you pay for a cheap laugh? This movie overflows with them. The physical resemblance that Marcia Gay Harden’s character bears to the actual first lady is uncanny, and Dennis Quaid is amusingly forthright as the Bush-like Staton. But it’s Willem Dafoe, showing up as some unholy combination of Dick Cheney and Karl Rove, who provides the most unadulterated glee. Alas, this trio may look the part, but the jokes flow repetitively. The Bush character is a stage-managed baby, requiring constant assurance that Jesus wanted him to be president. The Cheney character whispers words into Staton’s earpiece that Staton then repeats, etc. Funny, but tired.
Weitz is on much firmer ground in the American Idol scenes—a show already so campy that it resists exaggeration. Hugh Grant and Mandy Moore (playing up her wholesomeness yet again) attempt to meet as evil equals in love, but the relationship comes off like a fourth-rate Fountainhead. More successful, and the reason to see the movie, is the pairing of Omer and his cousin, Iqbal (Tony Yalda). Iqbal, a budding Arab-American drag queen, lives with his parents in a white and gold-plated Orange County house. When he’s mistakenly passed over by American Dreamz in favor of his foreign cousin, he sulkily declares that he will be Omer’s manager. Iqbal dreams up tableaux of cheesy excess, and Omer dutifully goes out and performs them for America. The two may be outrageous caricatures, but they remind you of the fascinating hyphenated America that rarely shows up on screen.
This will all play well in liberal enclaves like Madison, Wis., and I have already poured enough water on what’s meant to be a lark, but there is a final, troubling assumption at the center of American Dreamz. I’m more than ready to laugh at a scene that shows bearded terrorists gathered in a tent, raptly watching Omer in the final round, yelling, “He nailed it!” after a rendition of “My Way.” But the scene also implies that we can charm our enemies with our glorious entertainment: Why attack the country that has given you Julia Roberts? That’s a more dangerous American dream.