Hollywood liberals have a special place in the conservative hall of loathing. A prime place, right up on the altar, between Hillary Clinton and Al Sharpton. Dennis Kucinich would sell a kidney for that spot.
And every now and again, at a point that usually coincides with rafts of right-wing editorializing on how out of touch Hollywood is with its average, conservative viewer, the entertainment industry spikes back at Red America with movies like Fahrenheit 9/11 or Good Night and Good Luck. In the context of this rapidly-getting-old tit-for-tat, American Dreamz — an omnibus satire of America’s reality TV habit, its war on terrorism and its current administration — seems, from its trailers, just another gob of partisan spittle.
Close. American Dreamz is mediocre, but in a particular way that should make audiences realize the problem with Hollywood’s politics is something bigger than its high- and soft-minded liberalism.
Writer/director/producer Paul Weitz (the latter-day Prometheus who brought humanity the American Pie franchise) was actually on to something insightful when he came up with the idea for American Dreamz. His inspiration, he’s said, “Was just the weird feeling of, being like a lot of Americans and sort of reading the paper in the morning and worrying about terrorism…and then in the evening worrying even more about whether Constantine was going to get kicked off American Idol.”
Not genius, but a real observation. The movie he made out of it tells three stories.
On the Afghan-Pakistan border, gentle al Qaeda recruit Omer Obedi (Sam Golzari) is furtively practicing his jazz hands, whispering along to show tunes in his tent when his commander bursts in. His American visa has come through. He’s to go stay with his relatives in Orange County until his cell is activated. “When will that be?” Omer asks. “Never,” mumbles the chief, stomping out.
Never arrives shortly after Omer’s irrepressible jazz hands get him a spot on America’s most popular reality-contest-starmaker show, American Dreamz. The series finale is to be guest judged by President Joseph Stanton (Dennis Quaid). Omer gets orders to advance to the final round and detonate himself on live TV.
Shadowed (in moments overshadowed) by a trio of terrorist handlers (who ooze incipient Stooge-ness during planning meetings spent in hot tubs, sipping grapefruit smoothies, and misapplying skin lotion), Omer slices through the clipped progression of rounds. Everything about the familiar competition — Omer’s stage costume a la Sergeant Pepper, his embarrassing post-song tagline (“You’ve been Omer-ized”) — works into a single, workmanlike gag. Faults emerge, but an anti-American terrorist on American Idol: that’s a solid high concept.
Plot two, not so much. Sally Kendoo (Mandy Moore) is the stock small-town-girl-with-big-dreams. Or so the American Dreamz producers think when they descend, cameras rolling, to pull her on the show. She’s actually an icy fame-seeking robot who’s twice as Hollywood as the Hollywood types who think they’re using her.
This story’s comic bassline is nothing special. All the jokes that have been making the late night monologue rounds about American Idol for years — the superficiality, the hype, the sex with contestants — here find cinematic form. It manages to trundle along though. Partly because Martin Tweed (Hugh Grant), the show’s embittered, uber-Cowell host, starts to fall in a narcissistic sort of love with her. Partly because Moore is surprisingly able with her character. Partly because American Idol‘s formulaic sentimentality and farce have given the world so much to be ironic about.
From clever to passable to…well, what’s a word for derivative squared? Story three opens with President Stanton waking up on the morning after his re-election vaguely unsettled. He decides to read the New York Times on a whim. All of a sudden, he can’t stop reading, and his world turns upside down. Vice President Sutter (Willem Dafoe) can’t control him anymore. The press is starting to ask questions. His numbers are falling. So in desperation, Sutter-Cheney sticks a mic in the president’s ear and books him on American Dreamz.
The handful of scenes that are supposed to get Bush (er, Stanton) from point A to point B are a recitation of everything that lightly informed people can’t stand about the president. Bush is a moron. (“Did you know there are two types of Iraqistanis?” he asks: classic.) Bush is a religious maniac. Cheney is the puppet master. To bring it all to life, Weitz falls back on the standard tropes: the Texas twang, the malapropisms, the meathead swagger.
The effect is something like watching paint dry while listening to nails drag across a chalkboard. Not because it’s a liberal caricature, but because it’s the same liberal caricature the audience has seen 10,000 times before: in every political cartoon, every Saturday Night Live sketch, every tartly photoshopped Daily Show graphic since 2000. On the great scale of insipid political statements, “President Bush is a dumb” runs neck and neck with “Weather sure is nice today.” And that’s what a third of American Dreamz is all about.
If Weitz had put as little thought into his movie’s dialog as he did into its political shading, it might be said that he phoned it in: industry idiom for doing the bare minimum.
Conservatives often wail that Hollywood is such a nefariously liberal place that it would be impossible to find a single out-of-the-closet Republican on a studio lot if you tried. Too true. Though you don’t find many Trotskyites or Buddhist anarcho-theocrats either.
The entertainment industry isn’t one that thinks substantively or originally about politics, even as it throws its own up on screen with hammy passion. Writers, directors, and writer/directors who indulge their leanings in their work are just recycling opinions and images from the center-left milieu.
Ultimately, phoning in plot, cinematography or performance makes for a disposable film. American Dreamz illustrates the same goes for phoned-in politics.