From sea to shining ... stage?

Posted: Apr 28, 2006 12:01 AM

Once upon a time, the phrase, “The American Dream” evoked something good, proud, and pure about our nation. It prompted reflections on hardworking immigrants lured to the U.S. by the promise of home ownership, financial stability, and a better future for their children. It brought up images of Norman Rockwell paintings, family holidays, and twilight years spent rocking on the porch surrounded by grandchildren.

Then, over the course of a few decades, that dream became so common a reality for so many that its value withered in our collective imagination and a new unsavory, maniacal kind of Dream (many might even call it a nightmare) took its place. In this dream, significance is measured by public recognition not public contribution, and the value of a growing family and a home owned outright in which to raise them pales in comparison to the achievement of getting a record deal.

As a scathing indictment of this new national aspiration, Paul Weitz’s (American Pie, In Good Company) latest film, American Dreamz, succeeds with aplomb.

Taking its title from "American Idol," much of the film focuses on self-hating television host, Martin Tweed (a wonderfully acerbic Hugh Grant), whose hit program “American Dreamz” specializes in showcasing the vocal talents of “freaks.”

So unscrupulous is Tweed in his desire for ratings, he decides to exploit Middle East tensions by ordering his production team to find him an Arab and an Israeli for a singing showdown. (In this, Weitz brilliantly indicts a Hollywood mindset that believes everything, even geopolitics, exists to feed the entertainment machine).

The only decent audition tape they receive from an Arab comes from Prince-loving gay teen Iqbal (Tony Yalda) of Orange County. However, when the Dreamz crew shows up to congratulate Iqbal, they find his cousin, Omer (Sam Golzari), a sleeper-cell operative who also happens to love show tunes, and recruit him instead.

Of all the characters inhabiting American Dreamz, Iqbal most cuttingly sends up America’s obsession with fame. Though it’s implied they came from much humbler beginnings, his Middle-Eastern parents buy into our culture of mass consumption with platinum credit cards charged to the max. They indulge their son’s every impulse, including a basement sound studio complete with a stage and disco ball. Iqbal is privileged, loved, and given every advantage. Yet, when he’s not at the mall, he spends his days depressed and defensive because he’s not a “star.”

“We all love you, Iqbal,” his mother tells him when it is revealed that his cousin has accidentally stolen his place on “American Dreamz.” His response: “Great. How will that help make me famous?”

So all-powerful is the U.S.’s tabloid influence, even the terrorists, opposed as they are to the celluloid filth The Great Evil churns out, can’t help but be blinded by its glittering light. After describing to Omer how he will carry out a suicide bombing mission, his superior finishes with, “So, I have to ask, what’s Martin Tweed really like?”

It’s a bit risky for Weitz to use terrorists as a source for satire, but after the fear and grief they have inflicted on us, it’s rather comforting to laugh at a bunch bumbling, hypocritical Al Qaeda operatives. Not a little bit of the humor of that plot line comes from knowing how angry it would likely make the monsters that inspired it.

However, as astute and amusing as one half of American Dreamz is, the other is equally lazy and hackneyed. Its almost as if, exhausted from writing the A-story line of Martin Tweed and his television show, Weitz couldn’t be bothered to come up with anything original for the B-story of a simple-minded, war-loving president controlled by a balding, bespectled chief of staff (you might not imagine that Willem Dafoe could be made to look like Dick Cheney, but the costume and makeup people do an impressive job.)

There’s nothing wrong with a good chuckle at the President’s expense. Certainly Will Ferrell in his squinting, “strategery” heyday inspired quite a few. But these jokes have been so over-used even The New York Times had to roll their eyes at them.

Like a mentally-challenged child, the president (Dennis Quaid) must be told by his wife (Marcia Gay Harden, who delivers a perfect physical representation of Mrs. Bush) what “placebo” means. In the fifth year of his presidency and three years into the Iraq war, he realizes there are three kinds of “Iraqistanis”—Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds—and that they’re nothing like Dr. Octopus and Magneto, as his Presidential Briefings had told him. And his staff must constantly placate him by affirming that God did indeed choose him to be president.

On his show last week, Roger Ebert tried to defend this parade of worn-out taunts by appealing to our custom of making fun of presidents. It was a nice try, but when a characterization is funny, you don’t need to be reminded of “our great tradition of satirizing our political leaders,” you just laugh.