I went to see a screening of American Dreamz last night. I thought it would be kinda good, but it was kinda bad. Does that count as film criticism? I was intrigued by the premise—a thorough send-up of American Idol and the Bush presidency, the hollow nature of some of America's actual dreams and a chance to see Jennifer Coolidge. The movie is a satire of America, and if moviemakers should know anything by now, it's that America and satire don't mix. So the whole point of the movie is: "You guys are too fuckin' dumb to get any of this!" and the prospective audience is saying, "Exactly right. Laters."
In the movie, Hugh Grant plays Simon Cowell mixed with Ryan Seacrest, Dennis Quaid and Marcia Gay Harden play George and Laura Bush, Willem Dafoe plays Dick Cheney and Mandy Moore plays herself—well, not herself-herself, more herself as she probably felt she was when she was struggling to break through as a pop star in the long, curvaceous shadow of Britney Spears. I was at a shoot with Mandy Moore the day JFK Jr.'s plane went missing and I can assure you she is either a doll or a total fraud, and I'm leaning toward doll—but due to her immersion in the teen-pop world, she definitely understands what American Dreamz is all about.
The plot is that there is a huge #1 TV show called American Dreamz that broadcasts a mix of idiots and undiscovered talents competing against one another through song, live on stage, week after week, as the ratings continue to escalate. The show is so popular it is able to attract the President of the United States as a guest judge. Far-fetched, you might think, but then FOX is just an extension of the Oval Office for George W. Bush, so it could happen with American Idol except that Bush's numbers are too low for the show to accept him. In fact, the movie would have benefited from more out-there craziness. As my partner said, it's so literal it often forgets to be funny, which is hard to stomach from a film by the director of About A Boy, Good Company and In American Pie.
Duking it out in the competition are hapless terrorist Omer (Sam Golzari), who loves show tunes but has pledged his life to the cause of Islam to avenge his mother's death during a Baghdad bombing, and a sociopathic blonde named Sally Kendoo (Mandy...and yes, her name is a play on Can-Do), who cunningly reunites with her ex-beau (Chris Klein) since injured Iraqi War vets make great TV. There are some other contestants, but that part of the movie is distressingly underdeveloped—the set of American Dreamz looks like a bad telethon. It's an afterthought, and you can't blame the filmmakers for hurrying toward the climax—smart satire can tire your brain, but dumb satire can put you to sleep.
The move acts as a repository for actors who are often underused and underchallenged, and perversely, it underuses and underchallenges them: Jennifer Coolidge, Marcia Gay Harden, Shohreh Aghdashloo, Hugh Grant...their roles are either one-dimensional or almost non-existent. Dennis Quaid has a shot with his part, which imagines Bush (here masqueraded as President Staton) as a sheltered idiot who only needs to read the Canadian newspapers to realize he's been too close-minded, but Quaid phones it in—much like Bush does with his day job.
American Dreamz is not a total waste of time. Mandy probably doesn't have enough edge (in real life, she's an "obsessed" fan of American Idol) but her stunt casting coupled with some delicious comic timing do make her a pleasure to watch. My favorite line in the movie is when Hugh Grant's skeevy host Martin Tweed is coming on to her and Mandy's Sally says without irony, "I'm not physically attracted to other people..." But the real reason the movie made me laugh more than once, against my will, is Tony Yalda, a Lebanese actor who plays Omer's fiercely effeminate cousin Iqbal, a pampered Persian prince(-ss). Iqbal has his heart set on winning American Dreamz himself, only to have that dream hijacked by Cousin Omer, a member of a sleeper cell. Iqbal and Omer's interplay is priceless. In many actors' hands, the role could easily have become a gay stereotype. But Yalda is so intensely invested in the character and he nails the tone-deaf blind ambition of some of American Idol's gay wannabes so perfectly, his inspired performance transcends the uninspired movie it inhabits. Simply by being good instead of being condescending, Yalda beats out an entire cast full of amazing actors to emerge as the big winner in American Dreamz.