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American Dreamz

As

American Dreamz

begins, we find the two main male characters sitting on top of their respective worlds. Martin 'Tweedy' Tweed (Hugh Grant who has found a new and improved niche playing cads rather than romantic heroes) is the host of a TV show called

American Dreamz

in which contestants compete in a humiliating live talent show much like

American Idol

. The show's ratings are through the roof and such success is all that Tweedy cares about. Meanwhile, President Staton (Dennis Quaid) has just won a landslide re-election and returns to the White House riding a wave of popularity. But while Tweedy's careful manipulation of his product results in increased success, Staton ends up squandering his high approval in the polls to find himself in a ratings slump.

Staton has begun his second term with a sudden interest in the world around him. He starts to read the papers and discovers a world far more complex and troubling than he ever imagined. This prompts him to hole up in the White House reading while the press has a field day speculating on his mental health and withdrawal from the public eye. This prompts his Chief of Staff (Willem Dafoe channeling Karl Rove through Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld) to arrange for the popularity-impaired president to appear as a celebrity guest judge on Tweedy's American Dreamz season finale.

The film also looks to a pair of contestants who hope to make appearances on that final show. First there's Sally Kendoo (Mandy Moore) who 'can do' anything she sets her mind to. She's a blithely calculating and ambitious young woman who's willing to exploit anyone and any opportunity in order to get ahead. She's a slippery creature who can change moods and direction with impressive quicksilver agility. Her manipulative, get-ahead-at-any-cost mentality proves an odd aphrodisiac for Tweedy who has never been able to care for anyone but himself and his ratings.

Competing against Sally is Omer (Sam Golzari), a graduate from a terrorist training camp who is living in America with his very wealthy Orange County relatives (including a hilarious Shohreh Aghdashloo). Omer just happens to love American show tunes, something that initially outraged his terrorist superiors but now turns out to be an asset. When Omer accidentally gets a spot on American Dreamz , his terrorist cell see it as an opportunity for him to send a potent message on live television by blowing up the president during the show's season finale. But as Omer enjoys more and more of the American dream, he begins to doubt the goals of his assigned mission.

American Dreamz arrives on the heels of the much more astute and smartly executed satiric comedy Thank You For Smoking , and it suffers by comparison. Writer-director Paul Weitz gives American Dreamz some moments of hilarity but his film takes a scattershot approach to comedy and that lack of focus is a definite flaw. Weitz is more successful in his comic assault on television and the entertainment industry than in his attempted satire on politics. He tries to make President Staton a lovable goof who sincerely means well but who just appears to be mishandled by his controlling Chief of Staff. But aside from a few mildly amusing gags (mostly involving Dafoe's puppeteering efforts) there's no bite to the political comedy. And nothing near the savvy, savage jabs of a real satire like The Candidate . Staton's character is soft and fuzzy around the edges as if Weitz wants to maintain his likeability.

In contrast, Weitz and Grant deliver a devastatingly funny portrait of life at the top with the character of Tweedy. Everything about Tweedy is drawn in sharp detail and Weitz' willingness to hold Tweedy up to the light to see all his flaws makes for good comedy. In some ways, the film might have succeeded better if it simply focused on its TV plotline rather than trying to tie the entertainment and political stories together. Narrowing the plot down could have given the film a sharper focus and emphasized its strengths. As it stands, the scenes with the president feel tacked on, and we grow impatient with them and long to return to the more fertile comic ground of Tweedy's world.

American Dreamz (rated PG-13 for language, sexual content and brief violence) scores some direct comic hits and actually finds a very fitting way to bring all its loose ends together in the final moments. It also dares to enter politically incorrect territory as it attempts to mine humor from terrorism and the war in Iraq. Its success here is mixed but there's something inspired in Weitz' ending which suggests that a contrived, reality show like American Dreamz might do more to bridge the gulf between terrorists and American democracy than any diplomacy or military force might accomplish.

Companion viewing: The Candidate, Network, Smile -----

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