March 27, 2006

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American Dreamz (R)
Hugh Grant, Dennis Quaid and Mandy Moore all play people who have big “dreams with a z” in American Dreamz, a shaky political/pop culture parody.

“Dreams with a z” is a line from the theme song to American Dreamz, the American Idol-like television show that gets more people voting for its pop-star-wannabes than the film’s recent election did for president. The line, coming at the end of a monstrously bland “I Believe I Can Fly”-type song, is also one of many stand-alone-funny bits sprinkled liberally throughout this film. Unfortunately, no amount of these tasty Bacon Bits makes a whole ham.

Ham is something Martin Tweed (Hugh Grant) knows a lot about. He is all ham plus some cheese in his job as host and sole judge on American Dreamz. The only people he hates more than himself are the show’s ever-more-grasping contestants. On seeing the Kelly Clarkson-ish (but with the heart of Eve Harrington) Sally Kendoo (Mandy Moore), Martin tells his staff to find contestants with a less well-groomed freakishness. Find an Arab, he said, and they bring back Omer (Sam Golzari). Though they originally meant to bring in his fey, more American cousin, Omer — with his wide-eyed innocence and his love of musicals — is the perfect stooge. His love of musicals, after all, is part of the reason he washed out of terrorism training and was sent to America to await future, potentially-never-arriving instruction.

Rounding out Martin’s circus is President Staton (Dennis Quaid). Newly reelected, the president — a former happy-go-lucky anti-intellectual with a Texas accent — has recently taken to reading the newspaper and falling into a funk over the complexities the stories contain. His sudden desire to do some independent thinking has completely frightened his chief of staff (Willem Dafoe). In an attempt to keep the public from discovering that Staton has gone nutters, the chief of staff gets his guy on Tweed’s popular show as a guest judge.

Which suddenly gets Omer’s terrorist bosses interested in him again. His mission, they tell him, is to get to the final round and get close enough to the president to blow him up. But Omer, seeing that his dreamz are coming true, is not so dedicated to the holy cause anymore.

Of all the things taught at terrorist training camp, the ability to dance while singing isn’t one of them and some of the film’s funniest scenes come when the melodramatic Iqbal (Tony Yalda) — still stinging from having his cousin take his slot on American Dreamz — helps Omer develop a dance routine. Likewise, when the president is grasping for some meaning and purpose for his situation in life, the film gives some of the funniest lines to the first lady (Marcia Gay Harden), who in perfect Laura-Bush lilt addresses her husband as “Poopy.” And over in the Kendoo hometown, Sally’s agent Chet (Bedford’s own Seth Meyers) argues with her over the merits of weight loss and staying with her dullard boyfriend who has just returned from service in Iraq. These secondary and tertiary characters aren’t tremendously well developed but they do provide plenty of good one-liners and clever exchanges.

One-liners, smart sight gags, throwaway snarky comments — these are the pieces of a clever comedy, the pieces but not the entirety. American Dreamz feels like a sitcom pilot accessorized with a handful of Saturday Night Live skits. Funny floats around but never solidifies into one strong storyline. And, while nipping at the heels of the Bush administration and reality television, American Dreamz (unlike the recent sharp and snappy Thank You for Smoking) lacks any real bite. C-


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