Simon Says ... Nothing

Washington City Paper | April 28, 2006
Do you think American Idol is ridiculous? How about our president? American Dreamz is hoping that, in its own words, both make you “want to projectile-vomit.” Well, maybe you don’t have to feel that strongly about the TV show. After all, even if you believe AI is the epitome of the cookie-cutter mediocrity our screwed-up culture seems to embrace, you still watch it, right? If you didn’t, you wouldn’t get any of Weitz’s jokes.

Writer-director Paul Weitz, who brought us 2002’s About a Boy and 2004’s In Good Company, does a fine job drawing up Martin Tweed (Hugh Grant), a transparently Simon Cowell–ish television personality who lords it over a familiar-looking show called American Dreamz. After heartfelt performances, Tweed says things to Dreamz contestants—many of whom mimic former Idol players—such as “Cindy, I’ve felt this way before. And it was just before I wanted to kill myself.” Weitz goes out of his way to demonstrate that the judge is pretty much the same—straightforward, occasionally mean, unapologetic about his what-are-these-human-emotions attitude—when the cameras are off. When a girlfriend dumps Tweed at the beginning of the movie, he tells her, momentarily all Ryan Seacrest–like, that she’s “amazing.” Then, in self-aware Cowell mode, he says, “You make me feel like being a better person. And I’m not a better person.”

Grant, who is so much more fun as a self-absorbed font of sarcasm than a gooey romantic lead, gets the bulk of the screen time—and therefore gets the bulk of the humor. He’s, as always, a charming comedian, though he’s matched by Dennis Quaid, who delivers a subtle W, er, President Stanton. With an eerily Laura-cloned first lady (Marcia Gay Harden) at his side, Stanton, who’s been avoiding public appearances for a couple of weeks, makes a decision one day to read some newspapers while he’s eating breakfast. (When his chief of staff, the Cheney-disguised Willem Dafoe, comes into the room, he asks, “What’s with the papers? New puppy?”) The prez takes a lot of hits, from becoming lost when a speech-feeding device pops out of his ear to talking to his wife about her suggestion of “happy pills,” a discussion that leads to an explanation of what a placebo is. “Sometimes I think I’m a placebo!” Quaid’s commander-in-chief declares.

Seth Meyers also gets laughs as Chet, a ruthless agent—as if there were any other kind in Hollywood—out to make a star of Ohio Dreamz-er Sally Kendoo (Mandy Moore). Reality-TV cynics will just get affirmation here: The filming of Sally’s giddily receiving notice that she’s been selected for the show gets two takes because the first wasn’t good enough. And Chet manipulates the broken relationship between Sally and William Williams (Chris Klein)—dumped, he joins the Army and is immediately sent to Iraq—to maximum audience-wooing effect. There’s more lowest-common-denominator-baiting, too: A news report captures Sally at her waitressing job surrounded by, as the caption notes, “unemployed bar patrons.” And her first number is, naturally, “Mom, Don’t Drink Me to Bed Tonight.”

Weitz works terrorism into the plot, too, but despite the currency of its topics, American Dreamz never feels like true satire. It doesn’t make you think, and it won’t make you feel any smarter than watching American Idol does. Like a lot of reality TV, AI at some level wants you to feel superior to the people on it—to believe that you’d at least be a better dresser or social engineer, if not a better singer or judge of talent. Weitz’s critique is built into the show itself, which means American Dreamz needs to do some diagnosis of our screwed-up culture in addition to pointing out its symptoms. If the entertaining script and humorous performances are enough to leave you happy, call them a placebo.

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