Cynical, arrogant, self-loathing Britain Martin Tweed wants to shake things up for the next season of his wildly successful reality show American Dreamz. (Think American Idol with Simon Cowell as host and judge.) To accomplish this, he asks his team to gather an Arab contestant, a Jewish contestant and a "white trash" contestant willing to do anything to win the show.
Sally Kendoo is more than willing to play white trash for her shot at glory. She's also willing to get back together with an ex-boyfriend she hates (who just so happens to have been wounded in the Army in Iraq) because it's sure to draw audience sympathy. In fact, she's willing to do anything Martin, along with her stage-managing mom and her seedy agent suggest in an effort to make it big.
In an unlikely turn, the Arab slot is filled by bumbling young terrorist Omer, stationed with his rich, Americanized aunt, uncle, and cousins in Southern California. Drawn to the program by his love of show tunes, the reluctant Omer is tasked by his sleeper cell to make it to the finals so he can blow up himself and the President on national TV.
Yes, that President. After winning a second term in office, U.S. President Staton undergoes a crisis of "reality." The dim-bulb commander in chief starts reading the newspaper and books and questioning what's really going on with the war in Iraq. Finally, his chief of staff (visualize Karl Rove looking like a smaller-scale Dick Cheney) has enough of the President's introspection. He puts him on "happy pills" and gives him a tiny receiver to wear in his ear so the President can say whatever his chief tells him to. He also books him as a guest judge on the season finale of American Dreamz.
In part, American Dreamz is satirizing our global addiction to fame. As the tagline suggests, it imagines a country "where more people vote for a pop idol than their next president." Writer/director Paul Weitz wants us to get it that things are out of balance when the majority of people have more awareness and concern about who gets voted off a TV show than with what's going on in the real world of war, politics and international relations. Agreed.
The President, a crass caricature of George W. Bush, is shown reading the Bible and wavering in his conviction that God personally picked him to be the leader of the free world. His chief of staff is quick to affirm this to bolster his boss's confidence, crowing that God defeated his opponents by tearing them "a new one. He smited them!"
Aside from occasional cleavage and passionate kissing, nothing sexual is shown. However, a couple breaking up acknowledge that "the sex was good." Martin says he wants a contestant he can "masturbate over." Sally says that her daddy now lives with another man. Omer's cousin is presented as stereotypically effeminate, and his sister calls him a "super gaymeister." He calls her a "she-male." One contestant sings a song with the lyrics, "Let's get raunchy." Sally offers herself to Martin in exchange for helping her chances of winning. That offer is eventually accepted offscreen; afterwards, when he asks her if their actions made her feel dirty, she responds, "Not really." Someone comments, "He nailed her."
Omer's mom is said to have been killed in Baghdad by an American bomb. Sally's boyfriend bleeds a little when he (comically) gets shot in the arm in Iraq. A lethal (unwitnessed) explosion serves as the movie's climax.
Crude or Profane Language
Two or three each of the f- and s-word, along with more than 20 milder profanities. God's name is abused (once with "d--n"), and the word "b--ch" is uttered a half-dozen times. The slang "jerkoff" is used as an insult.
Drug and Alcohol Content
In remembering his past, the President describes a meeting in which he was "pretty toasted." He and the First Lady also reminisce about meeting for the first time when he spilled a beer on her at a frat party. Sally and others drink. Omer states that he does not drink alcohol.
Other Negative Elements
A significant portion of the story line is devoted to portraying a President clearly meant to be a cartoonish version of George W. Bush. Obviously disrespectful, the caricature turns out to be less offensive than I thought it might because it overshoots its target. Yes, Staton looks like President Bush, his wife like Laura, and his chief of staff like the Vice President. Yes, there's a war going on in Iraq and the real President's poll numbers are dropping. But Weitz's version of the President is such an idiotic puppet that the mimicry didn't stick for me. (I'm sure it will for some, though.) Eventually, the Presidential character is redeemed (sort of) by him speaking for himself and taking responsibility for understanding what's really going on in the world. His relationship with his wife is also eventually cast in a positive light. Still, there's no question the intent is to mock President Bush's intelligence, policies and Christian beliefs.
One thing is clear after sitting through American Dreamz: If Mandy Moore could sneak on to American Idol, she'd have a real shot at winning the thing. The girl sounds good, even singing the ridiculous numbers voiced by the show's contestants. But the film isn't really about the singing. Unfortunately, it's not about the laughing, either.
What humor is to be found doesn't come from Weitz's attempts to satirize America's fascination with pop culture or the workings of President Bush and Co. As a satire, the effort falls flat. The targets are too broad, the observations tired, and the jokes stale. Of course, shows such as American Idol attempt to manipulate the viewing public to make money. And, of course, we Americans lap it up in favor of more responsible pursuits. And agree or not with the sketch-comedy potshots at the current administration, you have to admit they've all been lobbed before with funnier material.
The only really chew-worthy elements in this film spring from a few performances birthed out of Weitz's interesting but underdeveloped characters. Hugh Grant's character's self-hating connection with Mandy Moore's self-hating starlet offers a glimpse of a story left untold. Here are two people discovering that the very fame and fortune they've idolized cannot save them from their self-absorbed misery. Omer's spoiled cousins are funny enough to anchor a TV sitcom of their own. And Omer's own struggle with the efficacy of terrorism is reduced to a rushed three lines of thrown away dialogue. In fact, every attractive story line feels truncated. Weitz succeeds in making me want to know more about these people; he just doesn't take the time to go there. There's too much airless satire to get to.
Thus, we get an outrageous third act suggesting that people will always line up for the next showing without taking time to digest the last one. America's appetite for shallow, thoughtless entertainment is endless. True enough. But Weitz gives us no reason not to want to chow down. Instead, American Dreamz turns out to be just another helping of empty calories from the pop culture smorgasbord. And not a very tasty one, at that.