Satire takes swipes at no-talent culture

  • Robert Horton / Herald Movie Critic
  • Thursday, April 20, 2006 9:00pm
  • LifeGo-See-Do

‘Look at me now, Ma,” crows rich, influential TV host Martin Tweed. “Look what no talent can get you!”

The new movie “American Dreamz” is a satirical take on our current culture of no talent, a reality-TV world in which third-raters are elevated to positions of power or popularity. Needless to say, this is a ripe subject, and “American Dreamz” writer-director Paul Weitz takes a big, fat swing at it. He connects more often than he misses, although overall the film leaves you wanting more.

Uproarious: A satire in which a shellshocked president (Dennis Quaid) agrees to be a juror on an inane reality-TV show a la “American Idol.” Mixing together showbiz lampoonery with jokes in a terrorist camp, director Paul Weitz lands some good punches against American culture. Hugh Grant and Willem Dafoe are in great form.

Rated: PG-13 rating is for language, subject matter

Now showing: Alderwood Mall, Everett 9, Galaxy Monroe, Marysville, Mountlake, Meridian, Metro, Woodinville, Cascade Mall

The script weaves itself together from different directions. The aforementioned Tweed (Hugh Grant in glorious form) is the Simon Cowell-like Mephistopheles of a top-rated show called “American Dreamz,” in which marginally talented people sing nauseating arrangements of bad songs. Any resemblance to “American Idol” is insistent.

The American president (a shellshocked Dennis Quaid), sheltered from bad news during his first term by his overbearing chief of staff (Willem Dafoe), has suddenly decided to read newspapers and educate himself on what’s really going on in the world. Naturally, everybody assumes he’s having a nervous breakdown.

And in the Middle East, a terrorist washout named Omer (Sam Golzari) travels to Orange County to stay with wealthy relatives. He inadvertently becomes a contestant on “American Dreamz” just at the moment the show arranges to have the president be a guest juror. The coincidence gets the attention of his terrorist trainers, who spot a golden opportunity.

We also meet small-town Ohio dreamer Sally Kendoo (Mandy Moore), whose yearning to be a celebrity trumps small considerations such as her loyal dunce of a boyfriend (Chris Klein). When the rapacious Tweed lays eyes on her, he knows he’s met a kindred spirit.

The film skitters through various showbiz inanities as the TV show progresses and Omer and Sally climb to the top. There are some gratifying jokes along the way – the performances on the TV show are especially accurate in their pop-bland tunelessness – although this steers the film away from its edgier laughs in the terrorist training camp and the White House. That stuff has much stronger, “South Park”-worthy gags.

Dennis Quaid doesn’t do a Bush imitation, but Willem Dafoe has no such qualms about looking like Dick Cheney. He’s uproarious. Sam Golzari is instantly likable as Omer, and Tony Yalda, as Omer’s flaming showbiz-loving cousin, displays pitch-perfect comic instincts.

Evidently the film was written and shot quickly, in order to capture the flavor of current headlines. That might account for the script having a first-draft feel. As funny as much of it is, it’s not fleshed out.

Give Weitz (whose films include “About a Boy” and “American Pie”) credit, though, for a final act that goes to logical conclusions, much in the bitter-sardonic spirit of 1970s satire.

Despite my regrets that “American Dreamz” gets away from politics in favor of easy showbiz lampoonery, maybe the collision of “American Idol” and the Oval Office makes sense. When politics and show business have merged as completely as they have in 21st century America, all the film’s targets begin to look the same.

Hugh Grant with top contestants Sam Golzari, Mandy Moore and Adam Busch in “American Dreamz.”

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