Many theatergoers will approach Paul Weitz’s newest production with mixed dread: the director’s past work promises the gag-ridden slapstick of the now passe “American Pie” dynasty, while recent installments in the genre of political satire have been painfully predictable. But “American Dreamz” erases these fears with a dose of well-crafted and well-cast fun.
Weitz makes the right choice by avoiding a satire that might be read as too allegorical. A backwater president spouting malapropisms and country wisdom — and receiving his briefings in the form of comic book analogies — doesn’t have to be Dubya to be funny. The accent is there, the implication is there and Dennis Quaid is hilarious as President Staton without ever choking on a pretzel.
The fact that “American Dreamz” takes place in a world we can recognize as our own is funny — and frightening — enough. The newly re-elected American president seems to have only the vaguest grasp on the English language, let alone the war being fought in the Middle East. More Americans vote in a pop music competition — run by a jaded and potentially deranged Brit, Martin Tweed, played by Hugh Grant — than for the President. And a group of terrorists spend their days producing training videos and their nights practicing jazz hands to the music of “A Chorus Line” (arguably, this last bit may have been added for comic effect).
We enter the film at the beginning of a new season of the top-rated TV show “American Dreamz,” where Martin “Tweedy” Tweed is struggling to hide his mommy issues and profound self-loathing so he can muscle through another round of shows. But faced with the knowledge that when you’re on top the only place you can go is down (or further up — there is some debate on this issue), Tweedy must step things up and make this season even better than the last.
So with the help of Judy Greer of “Arrested Development” and John Cho, familiar to stoners as Harold of “Harold and Kumar,” Tweedy sets out to stack the competition for maximum controversy. First, his cronies find Sally Kendoo, just a good ol’ Midwestern girl with a powerful voice and a snarky business savvy lurking right below the surface. Then, for added drama, they recruit a Hasidic rabbi, played by Adam Busch, and Omer, a terrorist training camp dropout whose superiors have sent him to America to assassinate President Staton.
But the season’s biggest surprise comes from an unlikely source. After the President begins reading the newspaper for the first time in years, he takes to lolling about in his PJs and pouting like a spoiled toddler. Public backlash forces his spin-doctoring Svengali of a chief of staff (Willem Dafoe) to launch a massive PR campaign, including a spot as the guest judge on the finale of “American Dreamz.”
The film’s greatest asset is the way it channels the freewheeling comic glory of greats like Mel Brooks, balancing a smart perspective on current issues with nearly flawless comic timing and a taste for the absurd. The comedy is ruthless, sparing no one in its incisive critiques, but we are on the edge of our seats waiting to see how the explosive finale turns out.
But this all-encompassing mockery sometimes has its pitfalls. It seems foolish to analyze a film whose clear objective was to give audiences a good time, but “American Dreamz” occasionally suffers from its own irreverence. The film’s politics are more the exaggerations of outraged Bush-bashers than a legitimate critique. While Quaid’s President Staton is likable, he is more like a charming patriotic puppy than a flawed leader. And while the stereotyped portrayals of Arab and Jewish characters poke fun at the extremely biased attitudes that threaten American multiculturalism, the characters certainly won’t be winning any support from the minorities they represent. And the numbers show that — at least two years ago — the country was packed with Bush supporters and “Idol” fans, both of which get a bad rap.
But maybe we’ve reached a place in our lives when we can all look back on 2004 and laugh. Or maybe not.