There are many things a satire should be — fearless, scalding, revealing — and one it should probably not be: too easy. American Dreamz is a political/media/showbiz parody so hungry to be topical that it looks, at first, like a case of deluded liberal Hollywood ”edge.” Here’s a movie in which the President of the United States, Joe Staton (Dennis Quaid), is a drawling, insulated cipher who can’t tell a Sunni from a Shiite, and who takes his orders — his very thoughts — from his chief of staff, a bald schemer with a Cheneyesque crooked grimace (Willem Dafoe). In other words, he’s a parody of George W. Bush that cuts no deeper than 100 sketches from the past five seasons of Saturday Night Live.
But wait! In an attempt to bolster the president’s sagging approval ratings, he agrees to appear as a guest judge on American Dreamz, a popular musical reality show in which ordinary folks with a lust for fame blare histrionically ”sincere” versions of pop songs, all to garner the approval of the show’s host, Martin Tweed — an acid-tongued British supercad played, with a dollop of charming self-loathing, by Hugh Grant. If ridiculing George Bush as an idiot is old comic news, then sending up Simon Cowell for his adorable smarminess — or the American Idol contestants for being shameless limelight junkies — is the height of redundancy. Throw in an Islamic terrorist (Sam Golzari) who lands on the show as a William Hung novelty act and gets ordered to blow up the president on national TV (even though he just wants to sing show tunes!), and you have a satire locked and loaded in its obviousness. The surprise of American Dreamz is that it’s a blithe, funny, and engaging movie, not because the targets are any subtler than they sound, but because writer-director Paul Weitz (About a Boy, In Good Company) has made the shrewd move of staging the film on a human scale, in the homespun wackadoo spirit of a ’40s screwball comedy. Rather than treating its characters as walking punchlines, American Dreamz gets us to like them, reveling, from the inside, in their plasma-screen narcissism.
The movie asks the audience to sympathize with President Staton as he reacts to his puppet status by tumbling into a depression (and, for the first time, picking up a newspaper). Is this letting Bush off the hook? Not really: It’s more a way of winking at the humanity of his passivity. Meanwhile, Tweed, on the hunt for new contestants, hits pay dirt when he finds Sally Kendoo (Mandy Moore), an adrenalized crooner who, with her chunky sexiness and trumped-up ”white trash” roots, is like Kelly Clarkson with a dash of Britney. She’s the most amoral conniver in the movie, and Grant and Moore have a wicked barbed chemistry as the host and contestant who despise and need each other. As the president gets ready to go on the show, wearing an earpiece that will feed him every line, we see that no one on screen, from Staton to Tweed to the contestants (who are offered up in a luscious parody of American Idol‘s throaty, showboating ”individualism”), has presented themselves as they are. Yet the film’s true target isn’t these bogus celebrities and politicians. It’s really us: the people — the audience — that make the new culture of American fakery possible.