Parsing Through The Really Fake and Surreally Real in This Pseudo-Political Cartoon
American Pie and About a Boy director Paul Weitz has a history of creating the semblance of reality in his movies despite such preposterous notions as Shannon Elizabeth being willing to sleep with Jason Biggs or Hugh Grant needing to manipulate women into dating him. His latest offering, American Dreamz, isn’t so persuasive. This American Idol/Bush administration satire is, if anything, so real at times that it feels unrealistic.
Consider stammering, ex-alchie President Bush—er, Staton (Dennis Quaid): Following his re-election, he suffers an emotional breakdown and turns to, of all things, a newspaper for solace. It’s only then that he realizes there are two—actually three, he corrects himself on second thought—types of Iraqis. Things get worse as he realizes he knows absolutely nothing about the world and begins to devour stacks upon stacks of foreign press, much to the dismay of Chief of Staff Sutter (Willem Dafoe, actually pulling off Dick Cheney with a bald cap, hunch, gut, and glasses). Staton, you see, is a broken puppet, so Sutter suggests “happy pills” and an ear piece to feed the president statements when live. The odd part is that even though the world cracks jokes about George W. Bush and his (possibly) diminished intellect, actually seeing a representation of that perception on-screen smacks of empty parody—despite Weitz’s satirical intent and the fact that it’s difficult to dismiss.
Staton is only one of three main story threads revolving around yet another season of the wildly popular American Dreamz reality show, produced and hosted by the soulless Martin Tweed (Hugh Grant, who Weitz coaxed out of a supposed retirement for the role). In casting discussions for this new season, Tweed demands that his team find “human” contestants. “And by human, I mean flawed,” he adds. “And by flawed, I mean freaks. Find me some freaks.” Later, he adds variety to the requirements; an Arab and a Jew will do. “How about an Arab-Jew?” a dim assistant asks. Again, this would be funny—and, hell, it is—if this sort of viewer manipulation didn’t feel so true. In fact, it feels so uncomfortably true that it comes across as surreal, because to believe it spotlights reality-TV viewers’ complicity in their witless consumption.
The third story line casts the war on terrorism as an even more passive couch-potato spectator sport than American Dreamz, and is far more toothy caricature than barbed satire. The United States is represented by Sally Kendoo (Mandy Moore), a Midwestern, blond-haired, blue-eyed Dreamz contestant who will stop at nothing to achieve fame and fortune; the terrorists are played by her good-natured Arab opponent, Omer (Sam Golzari), whose mother was killed by an American bomb. Omer, you see, was kicked out of terrorist boot camp for being incompetent, possibly semiretarded, and just way too into show tunes. After he’s sent to the U.S. as a “sleeper agent”—his superiors merely want to get rid of him—he lands on American Dreamz, the most popular purveyor of pop gluttony the country offers. He is consequently asked by his terrorist handlers to strap a bomb to his body and assassinate the season finale’s guest judge, President Staton. Since Omer is a “good terrorist,” though, he suffers from a conscience—as well as a love of the mall.
A more interesting theme that Weitz weaves through Dreamz is that of the puppet-master, the idea that everybody is manipulated by others in some form or another, and it’s only in recognizing this truth that we’re able to see rationally. Staton is controlled by Sutter. Tweed and Sally manipulate each other through a bizarre yet convincingly real symbiotic relationship. Sally plays her Iraq War vet “boyfriend” (Chris Klein) like a fool. Her agent plays the press. And Omer, he deals with two masters: his flamboyant cousin Iqbal (Tony Yalda), who, as he lives vicariously through Omer’s success, considers himself a Svengali; and the terrorists who cheer him on from the Middle East, even as they wait anxiously for him to detonate himself into fist-sized chunks of man-meat. In other words, Weitz has crafted a bubbly, superficially bright commercial comedy daring enough to attack its audience for mindless complacency in the United States’ role in the globe’s current instability. As Omer asks, “To what degree is this country culpable for its actions? Are Americans to blame for America?”
These would be great questions to raise if American Dreamz didn’t make it so difficult to separate its lampoon reality from how unrealistic our reality has become. In other words, Weitz wants Americans to ask themselves these very same questions. And that is pretty far-fetched.