American Dreamz [Retro Review]

“It turns out North Korea and Iran are not like Doctor Octopus and Magneto at all…”

The Scoop: 2006 PG-13, directed by Paul Weitz and starring Hugh Grant, Dennis Quaid and Mandy Moore

Tagline: Imagine a country where the President never reads the newspaper, where the government goes to war for all the wrong reasons, and more people vote for a pop idol than their next President.

Summary Capsule: A young Arab Dreamer is called on to blow up the President of the United States during the finale of a singing competition.

Lissa’s Rating: You know, the only difference between me and the “worst of” American Idol auditioners is that I know I can’t sing.

Lissa’s Review: A couple of years ago, the plot summary for Saved! was released. I remember it well, because we here at MRFH (writers and Forum members alike) mocked it pretty mercilessly. A young girl tries to “save” her boyfriend from being homosexual (thanks to a vision from Jesus) and then becomes pregnant? What demented mind came up with that?

Then I saw it. And it was actually good.

So when the premise for American Dreamz came out, I held my mockery. The concept of a terrorist in an American Idol-like competition who’s ready to blow up the President as the President is serving as a guest judge? It has the same lucid feel as the Saved! premise, and I couldn’t wait to see what they came up with. Seriously, this plotline had potential. Plus, there were three American Pie alums: Jennifer Coolidge, Chris Klein, and John Cho, who managed to turn a two-line part into a performance that will go down in movie history (he’s one of the MILF guys). Add in Hugh Grant as the Simon Cowell character, and Mandy Moore (who — and believe me, I hate admitting this — is actually growing on me) as one of the contestants and I said sold! Too bad it wasn’t done by the people who did do Saved!.

Before I continue, I have to I confess — I really like American Idol. I tried to pretend scorn at first, but as was intended by the Borg-like minds who created it, I have been assimilated. I had planned on taping this season because the Ducklet’s bedtime falls right in the middle of it, but I moved his bedtime a little bit instead. We even own two CDs made by the show’s contestants (the ones from Chris Daughtry, which is actually really good, and the one from Taylor Hicks, which has some great tracks and some mediocre ones). But it’s also a remarkably easy show to make fun of, and I can admit that with ease. Heck, the show makes fun of itself, especially when they showcase the bad contestants early on.

Incidentally, if nothing else, American Dreamz did answer one particular question for me: I’ve always wondered if these people (the really bad ones who genuinely believe they can sing) have friends or family, because who would let someone they loved go on a show like that and make a fool out of themselves? Now I know — they DO have them, it’s just that the friends/family are just as tone deaf as they are. One small mystery of the universe solved. (And the guy playing Omar’s cousin, Tony Yalda? This guy needs to do more comedic work. Very funny.)

Anyway. American Dreamz starts out rather amusingly. Martin Tweed is the producer of the hit show American Dreamz, as well as its acid tongued judge. Hugh Grant really makes a great sleaze-ball type character, and pulls off a very nice Simon Cowell impersonation while keeping the character not-Simon Cowell. In a completely calculated way, the producers of the show select contestants based not on singing talent, but ratings potential. And because he’s anticipating a ratings draw, Tweed wants an Arab singer. There’s a pretty nasty undercurrent going here as they pick one of the worst singers they can find. I can’t decide if it’s a slam at the Arab community, a slam at American Idol, or a slam at… well, whatever else. But regardless, Omar (Sam Golzari) — a terrorist flunk-out with stage show dreams- makes it on to American Dreamz, as do a Bo Bice type rocker, a Fantasia type belter, a Clay Aiken type — are you getting the picture? And then there are the two finalists. Sally Kendoo (Moore) is clearly a cross between Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood and is a cold, manipulative girl who is completely aware that the show is reality TV and is ready to play the game. Omar, a young Arab who has recently moved to the United States, appears to not be an American Idol clone, but only because he’s the nexus where the plotlines intersect.

So that’s one side of the story universe. The other side is the President (Dennis Quaid), who has just won reelection because his wife whispers the answers in his ear. But the campaign trail was exhausting, and now President Stanton is burned out and bored — and a puppet of the nefarious Chief of Staff. You know he’s nefarious because he’s played by Willem Dafoe, who hasn’t played a good guy since 1982. (I may be exaggerating there. But every time I see him, he’s a bad guy.) In an effort to convince the country that the President hasn’t had a nervous breakdown, he serves as a guest judge on the wildly popular American Dreamz. When Omar’s terrorist buddies get news of this, Omar is informed that his chance to be a martyr for his cause has arrived, and he must make it to the finals and then proceed to blow up the President on live national television.

You know, it’s wacky enough to be a fantastic premise, and I was really looking forward to this one coming out. But it was a disappointment.

Okay, let’s face it. If you don’t like the current administration — and these days, that’s ANY administration — it’s pretty easy to make jokes about it. American Idol practically makes fun of itself, and it’s target rich. There are SO many great jokes you could make about American Idol in something like this. But you have to actually go out and do it. You have to put a little effort into it. Note to the movie making team: jokes don’t make themselves.

The frustrating thing is that American Dreamz had promise. The character of Sally Kendoo was absolutely brilliant in terms of satiric parody, and Mandy Moore was the perfect choice for her. The writers understood what the American public wants out of American Idol, and there were some classic bits about that. There are some absolutely hysterical lines from the Presidential side of things. But overall, the movie can’t get off its lazy butt and be funny consistently. And it’s annoying, because now I want to go back and watch it again, convinced that I missed something, but we both know that’s not true. The truth is that American Dreamz failed where it could have gloriously succeeded.

When I reviewed Beerfest, I pointed out that what made it a successful movie was that the writers realized their premise was ludicrous and embraced the fact. They believed in the premise and went all the way with it. That was what American Dreamz needed to do. It was almost like Paul Weitz was torn between trying to stay realistic and trying to run with it. When he lets himself go, he hits the target. When he holds back, the movie is boring or cheesy, or worse, both at the same time. A hint, Mr. Weitz: the premise was never realistic to begin with. And while American Dreamz tries to break rules and make subjects like race relations funny, it misses the mark enough to fail at being funny but not so much that it crosses to offensive.

I think the reason I’ve been dragging my feet on this review is I’ve so desperately wanted to be able to say, “Wow! This is perfect Mutant material!” and I can’t. It’s amusing at times and worth watching if you’re really bored, but it’s not cuttingly witty and it’s not so bad it’s funny. It’s just sort of mediocrity on screen, although it’s better than about 50% of the garbage that’s out there. Draw your own American Idol punchline from that.

"Whaddya mean this isn't the toilet?"

Intermission!

  •  Shortest boot camp/basic training ever!
  • The Chief of Staff can’t find the briefing room. I’m stuck on that, because I remember so many receptions being held in the room he did brief in.
  • The signs in the audience at American Dreamz
  • Bomb squad dogs aren’t really that dumb, are they?
  • Even the stupid backgrounds behind the contestants are the same. Actually, it’s one of the more amusing jabs.
  • Omar’s voice isn’t quite as bad as they’re making it out to be. (Not that I’m saying it’s brilliant, mind you. But not heinous.)
  • The interior White House scenes were shot on the set of “The West Wing”. However, why they didn’t hold the press briefing in the briefing room is beyond me.
  • Writer/director Paul Weitz claims that he wrote the original draft of the American Dreamz script before he had ever watched an episode of “American Idol”

Groovy Quotes

President Staton: Did you know there are two kinds of Iraqistanis?
[the First Lady holds up three fingers]
President Staton: I mean, actually, three?
Chief of Staff: You mean Sunnis and Shi’ites and Kurds?
President Staton: You knew about this?

Martin Tweed: Jessica, you make me feel like being a better person and I’m not a better person. I’m me.

Reporter: See, people like the whole white trash thing.
Martha Kendoo: But we’re not white trash.
Reporter: I know, but look what it did for Britney Spears.

President Staton: Maybe it is time I read newspapers. I’ve learned a lot this morning. It turns out North Korea and Iran are not like Doctor Octopus and Magneto at all…

Ali Aziz: [Omer is doing horrible dance moves] What the hell is that? It looks like he stepped on a scorpion.

Chief of Staff: The President and Mr. Putin had a nice talk. The President considers him a close friend, while of course deeply mistrusting his undemocratic tendencies.

First Lady: [about the re-election] You’re wondering, what was the point of it all? Why you? Why now? Why did the Lord pick you out of all people? What are your special qualifications? And did the Lord even pick you, or was it just having really, really powerful friends?

President Staton: I’ve had speechwriters write for me all of my career and advisors telling me what positions to take. I can’t even remember why I wanted to get into politics to begin with. I think it’s because my mom wanted me to, to show my dad any idiot could do it.

Omer: I just feel confused… about this country. There are so many nice people here, but it does so much harm in the world… So to what degree is this country culpable for its actions. Are Americans to blame for America?

President Staton: In terms of the Middle East, it looks like the problems over there are never going to be solved. I mean never, never, never, never, never, never. So, I’m sorry about that…
Omer: Mr. President, I deeply hope for all of our sakes that you are wrong.
President Staton: I hope so too.

Sally: I’d rather jab my eyes out with toothpicks and eat them than lose this thing.

Sally’s Mom: At the Christmas paegent, first year, it was just so clear. It was like there was this very bright star in this group of very dull bulbs.

If you liked this movie, try these:

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