That noise you hear while watching Paul Weitz's American Dreamz is the sound of the air slowly escaping from this leaky balloon of a movie. After a promising start, the film visibly deflates before your eyes, as joke after joke falls flat and Weitz himself seems to forget why he thought the premise was funny in the first place. This isn't the first time that a smart filmmaker has taken such an impressive belly flop (Cameron Crowe's Elizabethtown is a recent example) and it's sure to happen again before the year is out. What makes the failure of American Dreamz so frustrating is that you can see exactly where Weitz wants to take the movie and how far he falls short. In concept, the film could have been Network for the "American Idol" generation. In execution, though, it's closer to a particularly dire "Saturday Night Live" sketch.
Perhaps the biggest problem with American Dreamz is its unwieldy structure, which has at least four storylines jockeying for space. The first involves no one less than the President of the United States, embodied here as dim bulb Southerner Joe Staton (Dennis Quaid, who is clearly not basing his performance on anyone currently in the White House...nudge nudge, wink wink). On the morning after his re-election, Staton wakes up with an urge to do something he hasn't done in years: read a newspaper. The problem is, once he starts reading about all the problems in the world, he can't stop. Before long, he's holed up in his bedroom with stacks of papers from around the globe littered all over the floor. Staton's sudden interest in world events-and sudden disinterest in making public appearances-scares his passive wife (Marcia Gay Harden) and his sneaky chief of staff (Willem Dafoe). After all, what good is a president who has the gall to think for himself?
Meanwhile, somewhere in America's heartland, a fresh-faced ingénue named Sally Kendoo (Mandy Moore) is sharing her life goal with her sweetly stupid boyfriend William (Chris Klein). That goal? To be famous. Really, really famous. Famous like Martin Tweed (Hugh Grant), the host of America's most popular television show, "American Dreamz." As luck would have it, Tweed is casting the new season of his talent-search series and Sally is picked to be a contestant. Martin immediately sees a kindred spirit in this Midwestern gal; her ferocious determination to win, along with her callous disregard for other people's feelings, can't help but remind him of his own me-first outlook on life. With Martin on her side, Sally is assured a place in the finals. But she faces stiff competition in the form of Omer (Sam Golzari), a secret member of an Islamic terrorist group whose penchant for belting out show tunes earned him a one-way ticket from the Middle East to Orange County. When it's announced that President Staton will be a guest judge on the season finale of "Dreamz," Omer suddenly becomes useful to his handlers. It's decided that he'll wear a bomb underneath his clothes and when the President comes over to shake his hand...well, let's just say it'll be a finale for the ages.
As you can see, there's a lot going on in American Dreamz and unfortunately Weitz can't keep up with his own movie. Like an overeager college freshman writing his first term paper, the writer-director strains to tackle so many points, he winds up losing the thread of his argument. The main thrust of the film seems to be about America's obsession with fame and how television shows like "American Idol" feed into that frenzy by giving ordinary people their own brief shot at celebrity. It's a potent topic and one that certainly allows for sharp, stinging social commentary a la Paddy Chayefsky. But good satire demands a certain familiarity with the thing you're lampooning and, strangely enough, it often feels as if Weitz has never actually seen an episode of "American Idol. If he had, he might have realized that there are other people on the show besides Simon Cowell, on whom the Martin Tweed character is obviously based. On "American Dreamz," Martin functions as both the host and sole judge, which is famously not the case with "Idol." Beyond that, where's the crass commercialism, synergistic celebrity cameos and kitschy renditions of classic pop songs that keeps bringing millions upon millions of viewers back to "American Idol" every week? Weitz doesn't appear to realize that audiences love "Idol" for its circus of spectacle. "American Dreamz," on the other hand, resembles a low-rent version of "Star Search"; it's hard to believe it would be a top-ten show, let alone the highest-rated program in the country.
If Weitz's grasp of the TV industry is shaky, he's on somewhat firmer ground when spoofing the current administration, although it's not clear what this material has to do with the rest of the movie. One could argue that Staton's ignorance reflects the general unawareness of the American public, who would rather watch "Idol" than a presidential press conference, but the film doesn't expand on this point. At least it makes more sense than the Omer storyline, which is underwritten and not very funny, unless you consider the sight of a fey Middle Easterner crooning "My Way" to be inherently hilarious. And that's the final strike against American Dreamz: It's a satire with no comic bite. Even Weitz's digs at the Bush White House are too tame, particularly when you have talented comic actors like Harden and Dafoe and even Quaid, who prove themselves willing and able to go for the jugular. You know Weitz has missed the mark when his real-world targets unintentionally provide more laughs than anything he can dream up.