advertise with us Salt Shaker archives find a copy of the magazine
Dreaming of an Idealized America

By Jeremy Mathews
American Dreamz
(out of four)
Universal Pictures
Written and directed by Paul Weitz
Starring Hugh Grant, Dennis Quaid, Mandy Moore, Sam Golzari, Willem Dafoe, Marcia Gay Harden, Chris Klein, Jennifer Collidge and Seth Meyers
Rated PG-13

Here is a movie that attempts nothing less than a full study of the pageantry and puppetry of America, from pop culture to politics to terrorism. "American Dreamz" doesn't have a perfectly consistent tone and isn't laugh-out-loud funny, but it's a Hollywood comedy of rare ambition: It is a film of ideas. The filmmakers have thrown aside the predictable path that the concept of an "American Idol" parody suggests in favor of something stinging and thought-provoking.

Instead of a dull romantic comedy or a self-satisfied and shallow exercise in pointing out the obvious, writer/director Paul Weitz follows the lives of people who are trapped in their own predisposed roles and who, whether successful or downtrodden, wish they were better people.

Hugh Grant is sort of the star of what is ultimately an ensemble piece. He plays Martin "Tweedy" Tweed, the rude host/judge of the top-rated talent competition TV show "American Dreamz," which is a (very) thinly disguised "American Idol." Trying to make the upcoming season more interesting, he wants to include less contestants like Sally Kendoo (Mandy Moore), the new season's token inspirational pop singer, and more wildcards. So he decides he wants an Arab on the show.

And thus Omer (Sam Golzari), a hapless would-be terrorist whose mother died in a U.S. bombing on Iraq, enters the picture. After his put-upon relative sends the misfit out of terrorist training camp and to America, Omer falls luckily into the show's hands, and begins to work at his true love: singing show tunes.

Meanwhile, President Staton (Dennis Quaid), who is basically George W. Bush, has a case of post-reelection blues. He doesn't read the paper, is controlled by his sleazy chief of staff (Willem Dafoe) and wishes he were a real leader rather than a witless, uninformed figurehead surrounded by puppeteers and yes men who let him believe that he was ordained by God. So the president starts reading the paper and, wanting to absorb all this new information (like the three types of "Iraqistanis"), never comes out to make public appearances. Rumors begin to float around about his health, and his approval rating drops. Dafoe's character tries to get things back on track, and the president's path begins pointing toward the game show's host and contestants.

I've been lucky enough to have remained oblivious to the details of the wildly popular "American Idol" over its past five seasons. But I've caught up with a couple episodes since seeing "American Dreamz" and can vouch for the film's authenticity. I thought it was a bit much when Tweedy took a swig from a big plastic Pepsi cup…until I saw Coca Cola cups and logos all over the real "Idol."

"American Idol" host Ryan Seacrest recently commented in Entertainment Weekly that the contestants have been learning the right times to smile, laugh, look embarrassed and frown. Weitz draws a comparison to the politicians and the contestants, both of whom manipulate the American people's view of them to gain support and votes.

Just as the president has his power-mad chief of staff, the contestants have their consultants. Sally hires an agent to coach her to victory and help her develop a back story, which includes upping her white-trashiness and getting back together with her boyfriend (Chris Klein), whom she dumped after getting on the show. Now that he offers a compelling story, she takes him back.

Omer's cousin Iqbal (Tony Yalda), an overly flamboyant wannabe star who is the default choice for the show's Arab before the producers discover Omer, gets out his urges for fame by serving as his cousin's agent and choreographer. Meanwhile, the terrorist higher-ups who planned to abandon Omer want to use him to make their violent, murderous point.

Unlike the others, Tweedy orchestrates his own show and its contestants—he even has a bit of sway over the president—but reveals his misery early in the film when he looks at his reflection and begs himself not to do another season. His pep speech to his staff is not the speech of a man who loves his job, but the speech of a man who knows that if he falls from his top-rated spot, he will become a mocked has-been.
Tweedy finds a kindred spirit in Sally's willingness to do anything to get to the top. He breaks protocol to visit her before the show, and is pleased that she realizes that insulting him is the equivalent of kissing the ass of someone who isn't so used to having his ass kissed. The relationship that follows can't be called a love story, but is surprisingly not cynical either. It's more a bizarre intertwining of two people who may never be able to have a real relationship.

Weitz previously made "American Pie" (1999), "About a Boy"—both co-directed with his brother Chris—and "In Good Company" (2004). This is his most ambitious effort, and suggests interesting work in his future. It is hurried and impulsive, subtly building themes while trying a variety of comedic gags with varying success.

While some of the peripheral performances aren't always pitch perfect and some of the relationships—namely that between Tweedy and Sally—could have used a few more scenes to develop, it's clear that the director cares about his characters. Even during the rather ridiculous ending, a poignancy lingers in the characters.

Another recent satire, "Thank You for Smoking," has more laughs, but none of the humanity as it crams whatever observations it has into a contrived cookie-cutter plot. Weitz sees his characters in all their wants and insecurities, and wonders if they really desire to be how America desires to see them.

jeremy [at]


The Salt Shaker is an Arts & Entertainment publication in Salt Lake City, Utah. It is published every other Friday. For information on advertising, call 801-637-0401 or email patrick [at] To have your event considered for publication, write to jeremy [at] Copyrighted material remains the property of the original owner. Web Site Copyright 2005.

Webmistress: janean [at]