American Dreamz (Universal Pictures, PG-13)

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While the characters do not meet the standards set out in Weitz’s previous work, they are better than most films, and the performances are as good as the material permits.

 

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Filmmaking tandem Paul and Chris Weitz are responsible for two of my favorite films of this young millennium: About a Boy, starring Hugh Grant, and In Good Company, featuring Dennis Quaid. So, when I saw the previews for their new film, American Dreamz, starring both Quaid and Grant, I was decidedly excited. Some of the dangers for successful artists are their viewers’ rising expectations. American Dreamz is not a disappointing film, but it is a disappointment considering these filmmakers.

The Weitz team has made five films themselves, as well as handling writing duties on other works. They share the producing, writing, and directing chores in a rotating fashion with Paul credited as writer and director of American Dreamz. Together they have amassed an excellent body of work in a short time. Since their directorial debut of 1999’s charming (and it was charming before it became a franchise) American Pie, they have provided one surprising remake, Down To Earth, and most importantly, two touchingly subtle comedic dramas, the aforementioned Boy and Company. Both American Pie and Down to Earth were amusing and had their moments foreshadowing things to come, but then came the Weitz’s follow-ups which were amazingly crafted masterpieces that sublimely straddled the line between comedy and drama. Both Boy and Company explored evolving complex relationships, dissecting characters searching for connections and meaning to their lives. Often these characters did not even know they were looking, much less what they were looking for, and when they found it, it was neither easy nor obvious, but always rewarding.

American Dreamz is a departure from those films. It eschews subtlety for broad comedy and social commentary. The film attempts to satirize both the American political landscape and pop culture, specifically the rise of the fifteen-minutes-of-fame reality TV star. Quaid plays the clueless American President having a crisis of conscience after reelection. William DaFoe plays a Rove/Cheney-esque chief of staff, worried that the President will get off message. Grant is the mastermind / host of a thinly disguised version of American Idol. Mandy Moore is the emotionless automaton frontrunner to become the next America’s sweetheart. Chris Klein plays the earnest to-the-point-of-creepy love struck teenager, and Sam Golzari turns in rewarding work as a terrorist deeply committed to show tunes. Subplots abound as everything and everyone careen for a collision course on the decisive live episode of American Dreamz.

With so many characters and storylines, everything is glossed over. There is little time to cultivate characters, as the Weitz’s have swapped their trademark depth and relationship exploration for social commentary. The satire also falls flat because the subjects they choose to skewer are so obvious. Quaid’s George W. Bush, with just a dash of Ronald Regan thrown in, is less layered than the average Saturday Night Live skit, and Grant plays Simon Cowell, who is a caricature of a real human being in the fist place. The filmmakers actually make fun of him by trying to make him self-aware and more human. And with reality show contestants, which get further and further from reality with each passing moment, there is little room for nuance. Due to the broad nature of the subjects, the attempt at biting irony becomes a mocking lampoon.

This film is more Mad Magazine than The Onion, but Mad Magazine is occasionally funny. Scenes of jaded terrorists caught up in the moment of the contrived competition, Omar assimilating into American culture. Many of Grant’s shenanigans are funny. While the characters do not meet the standards set out in Weitz’s previous work, they are better than most films, and the performances are as good as the material permits.

Overall the film lacks the depth of either About a Boy or In Good Company, or even American Pie, but it is funny.

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