State of the Union
by Nick Pinkerton
Dir. Paul Weitz, U.S., Universal
The last time, you may recall, that Paul Weitz made a film (co-directed with his then collaborator, brother Chris) whose title was prefixed with â€śAmericanâ€ťâ€”American Pieâ€”the patriotic staple in question got famously fucked. So itâ€™s a fair question: Does his newest offering similarly stick it to that still-potent idea of the American Dream?
Well, not as such, noâ€”did you really expect otherwise? But let it not be said that American Dreamz is a movie that lacks for scope; it stakes out a playing field of impressive dimensions early on, with a dramatis personae who clutch together a disparate batch of national preoccupationsâ€”pop, politics, and terrorism. Thereâ€™s Martin Tweed, host of â€śAmerican Dreamz,â€ť a vastly popular American Idolâ€“type program (Hugh Grant, inevitably suggesting Simon Cowell in his English-ness, though Grantâ€™s less puffy and more feasibly heterosexual), first met in his frigidly expensive L.A. house pulling off a cool, execution-style break-up (â€śYou make me feel like being a better person, and Iâ€™m not a better personâ€ť); a pinched, slow-on-the-uptake President Joseph Staton (Dennis Quaid, suggesting guess who?), introduced on the dazed morning after of his re-election; Omer (Sam Golzari), a klutzy young Afghan temperamentally unsuited but duty-bound to play terrorist, whose general ineptitude and secret love of show tunes from the Great White Way get him sent to a U.S. â€śsleeper cellâ€ť among clueless relatives (including the staggeringly pretty young Noureen DeWulf)â€¦ just so he wonâ€™t be underfoot; and a county princess (Mandy Moore) from Padokoo, Ohio, whose cocoa butterâ€“sheened cuteness conceals a calculated drive for fame to make Julien Sorel blanch.
All the elements are in order for an Orange Alert State of the Union comedyâ€”a 21st-century Dr. Strangelove, perhapsâ€”but the Dreamz ensemble has a significantly less urgent, edge-of-Armageddon agenda. The main idea here is the supremacy of entertainment values in every arena of contemporary life; as Pres. Staton, approval ratings plummeting, is pushed into a guest judge slot on â€śAmerican Dreamz,â€ť Tweed correctly asserts over the bargaining table that the White House needs his show (and its robust Nielsensâ€”this world is ruled by approval ratings of one kind or another), not vice-versa. That set of attitudes usually denoted as specifically â€śHollywoodâ€ť arenâ€™t comfortably confined by L.A. county lines hereâ€”rural Ohio has its hustling hussies, and even the director of a terrorist training video in the Pakistan-Afghanistan border hinterlands is a film school hotshot, barking â€śLetâ€™s shoot this puppyâ€ť to move his shoot along. And in this entertainment culture, the worldâ€”and the filmâ€™s castâ€”are divided into two types: sincere, big-eyed boobs and, as one character puts it, â€śbehind-the-scenes playersâ€¦ puppet mastersâ€¦ svengalis.â€ť
Into the former category falls Quaidâ€™s President Staton (a friendly, sobered-up frat-house rowdy; heâ€™s the President that American Pieâ€™s Stifler might make 30 years down the line, with the right connectionsâ€”or maybe Chris Klein in Election), into the latter, V.P. Sutter (Willem Dafoe, who gets his biggest laugh in his first appearance, bald-pated deathâ€™s head popping skinny and turtle-like out of an overpadded torso), a Cheney/ Rove amalgamation who feeds the Commander-in-Chief simplified metaphors of international politics culled from Marvel comics (Iran and North Korea = Dr. Octopus and Magneto), a steady diet of â€śhappy pillsâ€ť to keep his mind off the newspapers, and even his lines, via an earpiece, a shade of the first â€™04 presidential debate. Midwestern Machiavellian Sally, a â€śDreamzâ€ť contestant, keeps her earnest dweeb boyfriend (Chris Klein, naturally) strung along for the heartwarming backstory he lends to her bid on the hearts and minds of The Crowdâ€”heâ€™s a wounded veteranâ€”even though, she confesses, â€śevery time he smiles I want to hit him in the teeth with my shoe.â€ť And feckless Omer, who sweeps into â€śAmerican Dreamzâ€ťâ€™s final rounds in the token Arab role, is beset by his own, very persuasive management team, a trio of terrorists who want him to detonate himself and the President onstage on the programâ€™s season finale.
The film is imminently watchable, especially when Grant is at the center of a scene. As an actor of more-than-usual literacy (Iâ€™m not basing this on accent aloneâ€”he studied at New College, Oxford, and on Inside the Actorâ€™s Studio he could still quote verse from memory), he must be a little acquainted with the acid taste of self-hate that charges up when cashing his Mickey Blue Eyes paycheck, earned by a few weeks of phoning-in flummoxation, or doing the talk show rounds as public chastisement for parking lot transgressions. So he lets himself get wonderfully pickled in his own rottenness hereâ€”his relaxed Californian couture (open-necked button-ups untucked over $200 jeans, and always some insipid surfer neckware) and nice, even tan want to imply youth, health, happiness, but his chipper, ingratiating little smiles have a reproachful wince built into them, and they turn his face into a roadmap of lines. His scythe-like Cowell-isms are wonderful; to an oversinging contestant caressing out the line â€śIâ€™ve never felt this way beforeâ€ť: â€śIâ€™m afraid I have felt this way before, and it was just before I tried to kill myself.â€ť Weitz, who directed Grant before in the fine, wistful About a Boy, seems to be the only man working who can still find elbow room inside the actorâ€™s hyperarticulated schtick, and the simpatico of how they work together suffices to make Dreamz a justifiable expenditure of celluloid.
Nothing else in this movie quite burns through like Grantâ€™s chopped-out little grins. In fact, as satires go, itâ€™s a shockingly affable one. The terrorists are stock goons, Afghani by way of Hal Roach studiosâ€”Iâ€™d wondered how long itâ€™d be until we have Jihad-ing Mohammedans in our movies as unthreatening as Boris Badenov or the bustling turnip-shaped Muscovites in One, Two, Three. And these enemies of liberty are hooked on American TV, too!â€”which strikes me as a rather bogus conceit; isnâ€™t one of the things that frightens us most about the Moslem World the idea of a culture with the mettle to either resist or remain ignorant of our pop exports? Itâ€™s more or less a consensus that it was only entertainment, in one form or another, that could topple the Berlin Wallâ€”if not Reagan, then Michael Jackson.
On the other side of the cultural divide, we have Quaidâ€™s gentle, almost cradling mock-up G.W. Heâ€™s got the eyes downâ€”that oblique squint that is to some resolve, to others calculation, to others eight long years of uncomprehending, puzzled scrutiny of an obscure something in the distance. Dreamzâ€™s Staton is probably the kindest possible assessment that any liberal could have of Bush: a doofus with a palpable simpletonâ€™s decency, nudged in all the wrong directions by an administration of war hawks, profiteers, etc. He also has our presidentâ€™s prowess in a pinch, at crucial-seeming-but-actually-risk-free photo-op moments: shot low, backlit by studio lamps, he assumes a halo of leaderly salvation when the shoot of the â€śDreamzâ€ť finale turns into crisis.
Preceding scenes of soul-searching between the Commander-in-Chief and his excruciatingly understanding First Lady (Marcia Gay Harden), who works to wean him from worm-tongued advisors into having faith in his own moral instincts, are the movieâ€™s most flaccidâ€”which brings up something tricky at the center of the filmâ€™s script (by Weitz). American Dreamzâ€™s thesis would seem to be that the brightest hope for our embattled Republic is for the basically sane, honest, upright people who hold positions of power to mute out the movers, shakers, and manipulators at their earsâ€¦ but the movie's obviously more enamored with backstage skullduggery, and with the emotional amputees who pillage their way into the public eye, pulled by consuming instinct. Itâ€™s Sweet Smell of Success syndrome: we know that J.J. Hunsecker and Sidney Falco are nasty men, and yet we want to scream for them to come back whenever weâ€™re locked into a scene for three minutes with Susan Harrison and Martin Milnerâ€™s hunky, cornfed jazz guitarist. That the jaundiced and jaded are almost always funnier than the kind and compassionate is one of those sad facts of life and satireâ€”an imbalance that takes unusual artistry and wisdom to properly address.
To those who have the feeling of living in an America truly imperiled from within and without, a city on a hill whose perch is becoming ever more precarious, American Dreamz may seem a frustratingly amiable film. If you have ever had a inkling when watching televisionâ€”as I sometimes doâ€”that youâ€™re seeing images which will eventually resurface as archival evidence on some â€śDecline of the American Empireâ€ť special a century down the line, the â€śThatâ€™s Entertainmentâ€ť shrug of Dreamz may even seem risible.
I was merely a bit disappointed, though rarely bored, in seeing a movie with such breadth resolving to do so little. Another fact of satire is that its piquancy depends on a feeling of in-the-nowness, and Dreamz seems well behind the times in its assertion that entertainment and politics have cross-pollinatedâ€”remember that we have already seen a head of SAG as president. And the filmâ€™s crisp characterizations are even more quaintly reassuring; itâ€™s a bit too easy to separate the boobs from the svengalis here. But on thinking back, this becomes a darker, stranger movie than you might remember having just seen. The cutesy, mischievous flute on the score, the goofy reaction shot that Klein has after catching an insurgentâ€™s bulletâ€”as the movie bounces along, weightless as fake tits, you might not even notice how full of death it is.