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American Dreamz

Innumerable films have been made about the American Presidency — virtually none have been made about a popular television show. But when Hugh Grant appears at the opening of Paul Weitz's American Dreamz (2006), wearing a tight black t-shirt, reading a fax of his latest ratings, and getting dumped by his girlfriend, few folks outside of a terrorist detention camp will fail to recognize him as Simon Cowell, the acerbic British star of Fox-TV's "American Idol." Here, Grant plays Martin Tweed, producer and host of the televised talent competition "American Dreamz," a man who seems emotionally isolated and bored with his success — he even hates his own television show so much that he insists the upcoming season offers first-rate stunt casting, including an Arab and a Jew. At the same time, President Joseph Staton (Dennis Quaid) has disappeared from public view, embroiled with books and newspapers and doubts on his foreign policy initiatives, forcing his Chief of Staff (Willem Dafoe) to construct elaborate defenses for the press and, eventually, book the president as a guest judge on the "American Dreamz" finale to up his profile. The season's "Dreamz" contestants include midwest beauty Sally Kendoo (Mandy Moore), who dumps boyfriend William Williams (Chris Klein) just as her star is rising, only to take him back when his wounded-veteran status makes him useful in her "Dreamz" video biography. But also in the hunt for the top prize is Omer Obeidi (Sam Golzari), a washout terrorist who's on permanent sleeper status in Orange County until he's accidentally scooped up by the "Dreamz" producers, causing his cell commanders to order the assassination of the president on live TV, with Omer as a convenient martyr.

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Paul Weitz's evolving career as a writer/director has been fun to observe, if not easy to predict. After scoring big with American Pie (1999), which revived the teenage-sex-comedy genre with a bit more heart and intelligence than anyone expected, he helmed About a Boy (2002) and In Good Company (2004), a pair of light, disarming comedies about isolated people who find themselves in unexpected life-transitions. Similarly, American Dreamz concerns itself with lonely — and essentially unhappy — people, although it's a stark departure from his previous work (which, in the DVD commentary, he indicates was a purposeful choice). If dying is easy and comedy is hard, then satire is damn near impossible to pull off, and the best examples of the craft (Dr. Strangelove, Team America: World Police) are rare indeed. Satire's required elements also are a dramatist's foremost obstacles: the characters are largely unsympathetic, the plot contains a topical skew, and the line between what's funny and what's generally offensive can be treacherously thin. For the most part, Weitz pulls it off in American Dreamz, which is solidly entertaining throughout, even if it lacks the solar-plexus jabs that elevate satire into gleeful alternate reality. At times — particularly with the presidential material — it even threatens to veer into SNL territory, although it never quite does. Weitz's interest in solitude and depression permeate the film, at times with subtexts that invite our own analysis of Tweed, Staton, and Sally, each representing a facet of America's shallow acquisition-culture. Grant is particularly good here, playing the delightfully elitist scumbag he perfected in two Bridget Jones movies. Quaid also has fun with his George W. Bush caricature, supported by Willem Dafoe and Marcia Gay Harden as two unmistakable cohorts. And Mandy Moore's against-type blend of the ultra-ambitious All-American girl can be bitingly funny ("I would rather jab out my own eyeballs with toothpicks and eat them than lose this competition"). We aren't really being told anything we don't know — virtually everyone on reality television or the nightly news is not who they seem, and they certainly aren't like the reg'lar folks they hope to portray; that sort of status simply can't be achieved without a certain level of commitment and ambition that most people simply don't have. But American Dreamz is a notable post-9/11 entertainment, in part simply because we aren't likely to see too many comedies that open in a terrorist training camp and offer a suicide bombing as a finale.

Universal's DVD release of American Dreamz offers a solid anamorphic transfer (2.35:1) with Dolby Digital 5.1 audio. Writer/Director Paul Weitz offers a solo commentary track, interspersed with additional comments by star Sam Golzari, while other extras include a deleted scenes reel (12 min.), "Center Stage: Sally Kendoo" (3 min.), and "Dance Dreamz" (7 min.). Keep-case.

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