Monday, April 24, 2006

REVIEW: American Dreamz

Now HERE is one weird, fascinating odd-duck of a movie. I'm not sure how to describe it other than to call it a drama that's somehow been cast with SNL-issue caricatures in all of the lead roles.

It's story reads like some kind of cross pop-cultural fan-fiction: President Stanton (Dennis Quaid doing an affectionately dead-on George W. Bush riff) wakes up the day after re-election and decides he should try reading a newspaper in lieu of his usual briefing. Stanton, a well-meaning but not-brilliant man, becomes overwhelmed by the sheer volume of things in the world he doesn't know and vanishes from public life, locked in the White House surrounded by growing stacks of books and newspapers. The Chief of Staff, (Willem Dafoe as sooo-totally-not-Dick-Cheney,) who fancies himself the "power behind the throne," sees this newfound intellectual curiosity on the president's behalf as a threat to his control; so he uses a regimen of mind-altering medication and earpiece-microphones to manipulate Stanton onto a media-fluff P.R. blitz, culminating in the president guest-judging the finale of "American Dreamz."

"Dreamz" is, of course, a stand-in for "American Idol" and, like it's real-world cousin, is a worthless but incredibly-popular televised talent show overseen by an unctuous, amoral Brit (Hugh Grant.) Named Martin Tweed, he puppeteers the winners and losers to keep the most ratings-friendly contestants in the running. His big hook this season is to split the frontrunners between a blonde all-American girl, a Hasidic Jew and... wait for it... an Arab! The songstress is Sally Kendoo (Mandy Moore) a soulless fame-obsessed harpy playing at all-American sweetness. The Arab, through a series of coincidences, is Omer (Sam Golzari.) A would-be terrorist (really!) kicked out of Al Qaida for being too sensitive (he'd rather sing showtunes than murder-bomb people,) Omer lucks into the contest and is suddenly re-united with his "brothers": They know that President Stanton will be on the finale, and they want Omer to get that far so that he can blow him up!

This is a DENSE plot, even for a broad satire, and all of these characters and storylines strain to fit into a single film when most of them are crying out for a feature of their own. There's more, too: Whole subplots focusing on Stanton's genuinely loving relationship with his wife (Marcia Gay Harden,) Sally's heartless treatment of her "boyfriend," (Chris Klein) a wounded Iraq War vet who genuinely adores her but whom she only strings along because dating him makes her look patriotic, and Omer's non-terrorist relatives: A happily-assimilated Arab American family. And there's the matter of Tweed and Sally's creepy growing-attraction to one-another: Both are immensely in love with their mutual awfulness of character.

With this much going on in a stylistic structure that's remarkably offbeat to begin with, it's understandable that "Dreamz" winds up being kind of a mess. It's characters are sketch-comedy archetypes, either broad caricatures or sharp celebrity parodies, but the storyline eventually wants us to take them and their arcs seriously. Even Tweed and Sally Kendoo, ostensibly two of the villians of the peice, are afforded moments of reflection and depth (though Dafoe's psuedo-Cheney is a baddie to the core.)

I can't say that this is a film that really "works" as a whole, but as a unique creature unto itself it's endlessly engaging and kind of brilliant in spots. Most surprising is Quaid's turn as the Bush-like president: You're expecting a scathing satire but instead it's closer to affection and wishful thinking. Stanton is a good man, trying to be better, far from the anti-Bush "attack" many would be anticipating.

Director Paul Weitz, late of "American Pie" and "About a Boy," has MUCH more venom, apparently, for "American Idol" and the popular culture that rewards such idiocy with huge ratings than he does for America's oft-maligned commander in chief. There's a scene in the 1st act where Stanton is meeting the Premier of China and tries to discuss the fact that his research into North Korea is giving him (literal) nightmares rather than exchange state-visit platitudes, only to be undercut by Dafoe's scheming that's kind of heartbreaking in an odd, affecting way. And there's something... horrible... about a later scene where the Chief of Staff "handles" his president like some kind of literal object as he fine-tunes a hidden earpiece. Weitz even gives his would-be Bush a speech at the end which is at once an act of attempted heroism, a signal of Stanton's coming into his own as a REAL leader and, it can be surmised, a talk-to-the-audience statement of the writer/director's intended message about America in the age of reality TV.

Also problematic but frequently gutsy is the way the story veers without warning into moments of real darkness: You keep waiting for Tweed and Kendoo to reveal some level of human decency, but instead they only get more and more loathsome as the story goes on; leading inexorably to a pitch-black finale wherein the film's dueling representatives of pure-evil and too-good-for-ones-own-good reach a disturbing mutual fate. And even then, the focus dives back and forth from that darkness to the sugary hopefulness of Omer's rejection of terrorism, and to the touching realization of where (and whom) Stanton needs to turn in order to find his redemption and strength.

This movie is messy, sloppy, full of big dreams and grand ambitions. It doesn't "hold together" as well as lesser works of lesser ambition, but it's trying it's ASS off to be something unique and capture a moment in time in the context of a comic-drama. It's worth you're time to see it for yourself.