There is a time during "American Dreamz"namely, the first half-hour or sowhere the film looks like it is setting itself up to be a cunning, tongue-in-cheek ribbing of timely political matters and the country's obsession with reality television programs, most of which aren't very real at all. The longer it goes on, however, the more its true darker colors begin to show. As anti-American as any motion picture in memory made by an American director, "American Dreamz" self-destructs little by little until it is nothing more than a mean-spirited and singularly distasteful experience. Whatever messages writer-director Paul Weitz (2004's "In Good Company
") was trying to make can finally be boiled down into one narrow-minded and unsettling statement: all Americans are idiots.
Martin Tweedy (Hugh Grant), a character blatantly based on Simon Cowell, is the beleaguered, harshly honest host of "American Dreamz," a wildly popular "American Idol"-like singing competition where the viewers at home get to decide who their next pop idol will be. Tired of the same old boring routine and namby-pamby contestants, Martin's goal for the show's next season is to find what he describes as "freaks," talented singers who will stand out, be interesting for their diversity, and win over the nation's hearts.
Enter the two young talents positioned to be in the running for the finals: Sally Kendoo (Mandy Moore), a vapid, fame-hungry native of Padooki, Ohio, and Omer Obeidi (Sam Golzari), a halfhearted undercover Iraqi terrorist staying with relatives in Orange County. Sally, a cutthroat competitor who turns on the charm for the public and stages a reunion with dim, loyal ex-boyfriend William Williams (Chris Klein) after he returns home wounded from the war in Iraq, is willing to do whatever it takes to win a spot in the final two. Omer, meanwhile, receives instructions he isn't sure he wants to go through with: sacrifice his own life to blow up U.S. President Staton (Dennis Quaid), who is set to co-judge the finals.
"American Dreamz" can be credited for not being cookie-cutter and like every other predictable mainstream studio picture out there, but writer-director Paul Weitz has gone too far in the opposite direction. The uncompromising, unwarranted cynicism he brings to his script is something of a mystery; until now, he has crafted a filmography of simple, charming gems, including 1999's "American Pie
" and 2002's "About a Boy
." In moving away from his norm, Weitz has disastrously confused ugly cruelty for sharp satire and garish caricatures for three-dimensional characters.
Indeed, the only virtuous person to be found is Omer, a good-hearted foreign terrorist having second doubts about his appointed mission. Everyone else is an absolute fright, written to either be as dumb as a box of hair or as monstrous as the Wicked Witch of the West. They're all vain, shallow individuals with little more than a fleeting glimpse of souls underneath their insufferably phony personalities. On the one end of the spectrum, George W. Bush clone President Staton is but a patsy for his political team, including his Chief of Staff (an unrecognizable Willem Dafoe), to feed him his speeches through a tiny earpiece in order to relay their own opinions and agenda. When Staton gets fed up with doing things their way and gets the chance to speak for himself, he turns out to be a mumbling fool closer to an Alzheimer's patient than a strong leader of the country. Also on the intelligence-deprived side is William Williams, depicted in the media as a war hero and so blinded by his incomprehensible love for Sally that he doesn't realize she is only pretending to care for him to garner the audience's votes.
Speaking of Sally Kendoo, she is such an egotistical waste of human life right from the very start that it is impossible to believe that viewers of the television show would fall for her. Instead of being portrayed as a nice small-town girl who slowly moves to the dark side once her popularity grows and she gets a taste of the high life, Sally is a consistent one-dimensional wretch who is nasty to her supportive mother (Jennifer Coolidge) for no apparent reason, nasty to William just because his ambitions don't coincide with hers, and utterly inconsiderate to other people's feelings. Mandy Moore (2004's "Saved!
") is one of the most talented and lovely of today's musicians-turned-actors and a pro when it comes to comedic timing, so it is especially painful to witness the transformation she must endure to play this character. Moore is convincing in the part, but it is a part so unattractive and hateful it has to be seen to be believed. As the host of "American Dreamz," Martin Tweedy, Hugh Grant (2003's "Love Actually
") is forgettable in a smaller role than expected. Grant proves that he couldn't host a show to save his life, let alone a pop cultural phenomenon; indeed, if he were to take over for Ryan Seacrest and the current "American Idol" contestants were swapped with the talentless ones on display in this film, FOX would have a ratings catastrophe on their hands.
About five solid laughs and another handful of amusing moments are sprinkled throughout "American Dreamz," most having to do with terrorist-in-training Omer's (played charismatically by newcomer Sam Golzari) love of Broadway hits and the occasional spry comment about the corny conventions of reality television. The rest of the film only gets worse the more one thinks about it. The characters are so unpleasant it is a chore to watch them on the screen, and no attempt is made to see them as anything more than terrible people. Every relationship is one-note and haphazardly underdeveloped. The singing competition is improbable and woefully constructed; there's no way it could take the world by storm the way "American Idol" has, especially since the only good singer on view is Mandy Moore.
The cast is wasted from top to bottom, with such first-rate actors as Marcia Gay Harden (2005's "Bad News Bears
"), Shohreh Aghdashloo (2003's "House of Sand and Fog
"), Judy Greer (2004's "The Village
") and Jennifer Coolidge (2004's "A Cinderella Story
") thrown into nothing parts that give them just thatnothingto work with. And the ending, in which the show's finale broadcast takes an unexpectedly violent turn, leaves the viewer feeling depressed, empty and downright angry. A would-be comic satire as superficial as the people it mocks, "American Dreamz" is a toxic love letter to hate. Audiences can prove writer-director Paul Weitz wrong on his theory that the country's citizens are brain-dead drones by not showing up in theaters playing this ill-conceived bomb.