By Sarah Carlson, Arts Editor
Stephen Colbert is brilliant.
Monday through Thursday nights on Comedy Central’s “The Colbert Report,” Colbert takes on the persona of a right wing, in-your-face TV news pundit who’ll defend the Bush administration to the death. He’s like Bill O’Reilly, only likeable.
It’s all an act, though, and his shtick only works because his impersonations of the pundits are dead-on, inane outcries about the government and all. He’s studied his targets and by taking on their characteristics, he is able to in turn make fun of them by pointing out their flaws through irony, sarcasm and wit. That’s the nature of a satire.
“American Dreamz” wants to be as funny and satirical as an episode of “The Colbert Report” or “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” but fails miserably. In what could have been an interesting look at pop culture, writer and director Paul Weitz (“American Pie,” “About a Boy,” “In Good Company”) instead overreaches in this silly excuse for a satire that draws more yawns than chuckles.
The film attempts to be an indictment on American society – one that is at war in Iraq, lead by a less-than-smart president with a chief of staff who does all the talking, and in which a popular TV show that finds the next big pop star garners more public interest than current affairs.
Sounds familiar. Still, the film pulls punches left and right and takes easy shots at the president and other Americans that never follow through.
Martin Tweed (Hugh Grant) hosts the phenomenally popular reality show “American Dreamz,” a play on “American Idol,” and is a cross between the real show’s snotty British judge, Simon Cowell, and pretentious host, Ryan Seacrest. Tweed has no morals or integrity and only cares about the bottom line: what will bring in more ratings.
For the next season of “American Dreamz,” Tweed scours the country in search of the next poor soul he and his producers can market to America. Playing the blonde, small town girl-next-door is Sally Kendoo (Mandy Moore). Providing the ethnic variety for the show is Omer (Sam Golzari), a trained Iraqi terrorist, with a passion for show tunes, sent to live with relatives in Orange County, Calif.
While Tweed is casting the next season of the show, trouble is brewing in Washington. President Staton (Dennis Quaid), fresh off re-election and an obvious parody of President Bush, has decided to take a break from running the country by closing himself off in his room and reading newspapers and books, items he usually has avoided. His chief of staff (Willem Dafoe), who looks a lot like Vice President Dick Cheney, does the talking for him, and along with the first lady (Marcia Gay Harden), consoles Staton and encourages him to stop reading and get back out in public.
Once members of the press begin questioning the mental stability of the president, the unnamed chief of staff swiftly attempts to save face by scheduling back-to-back public appearances for Staton, including one as a guest judge on the “American Dreamz” finale.
Making Staton have the mental capacity of a third-grader is the easy way out, and here’s where Weitz could have learned a trick or two from Colbert. Staton is the version of Bush that some critics assume is the reality, not the persona presented to the American public. Bush has his verbal guffaws and incredulous facial expressions, so why not use those as a starting point for a characterization?
One scene shows Staton describing his belief that he’s been appointed by God to his position of power, and another shows the chief of staff telling the White House press core to not ask questions about the president and to remember that, because the country is at war, they should focus on what’s really important. These critiques of current trends in our society are not without merit, but they’re not fully developed.
Because Weitz doesn’t delve into the real problems behind these characters, based on real people, the critiques are barely noted and come across as merely whines from self-proclaimed martyrs. These issues deserve more than the canned presumptions displayed in the film.
The scenes between Staton and his chief of staff fall flat because there’s no meat to them. There’s a line somewhere between imitating a person and imitating an idea of a person or a caricature of them. It’s thin, but it’s there. Will Ferrell impersonating Bush on “Saturday Night Live:” funny. President Staton in “American Dreamz:” not funny.
Moore makes an impressive turn as Sally, proving she’s grown past her teen pop days. Too bad this film’s humor isn’t as biting as another film of Moore’s, “Saved!” It’s also unfortunate that Jennifer Coolidge (“Best in Show,” “American Pie,” “Legally Blonde”) wasn’t given better material to work with to deliver her usual, hilarious deadpan. Grant’s portrayal of Tweed is confusing; we see glimpses of humanity coming from him, or a deeper sense of self-awareness than you’d expect, but they’re few and far between.
In “American Dreamz,” Weitz apparently wants to comment on the state of American society and our preference to choose our own reality – believe what we want to believe – rather than accept the reality that’s been dealt to us. He’s got a point, but it’s lost amid the fruitless noise coming from the underdeveloped and stereotypical characters’ mouths.
His previous films, mainly About a Boy, have had a certain charm and wit to them that “American Dreamz” lacks. The only thing I left the theatre with was a bitter taste in my mouth and a shared sense of his disillusionment.
Toward the end of the film, one of the characters says that Americans can’t be held responsible for the actions of their country, which was surprising to hear. Perhaps Weitz forgot to take his own advice and did what he is criticizing others for: he created his own version of reality.
American society deserves its share of criticism, as does the current administration, but “American Dreamz” doesn’t cut it.
Rated: PG-13 (for brief strong language and some sexual references)
Starring: Hugh Grant, Mandy Moore, Chris Klein, Jennifer Coolidge
Directed by: Paul Weitz
Release Date: April 21