[Screen It]

(2006) (Hugh Grant, Dennis Quaid) (PG-13)

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Comedy: As a terrorist group tries to get an inept, show tune loving member to become a finalist on a TV talent show so that he can kill the bumbling President of the United States, another aspiring star finds herself drawn into the world of manipulation ruled over by the show's self-loathing host.
Martin Tweed (HUGH GRANT) is the self-loathing host of the popular TV talent show "American Dreamz," but has grown tired of its popularity, the usual array of contestants, and even himself. Accordingly, he orders his assistants to get him some variety and conflict, specifically asking for both a Jew and Arab to spice things up a bit.

After landing Orthodox rapper Sholem (ADAM BUSCH), they go looking for the flamboyant American-Arab Iqbal (TONY YALDA), but instead find his cousin Omer (SAM GOLZARI), an aspiring terrorist whose complete ineptness in the line of work and love of show tunes has him sent to American to get him out of the way. Iqbal's sister Shazzy (NOUREEN DeWULF) is amused that her brother was passed over, and he eventually decides to go behind the scenes and become Omer's agent.

But the odds are stacked against them since Martin has taken a liking to sweet looking contestant Sally Kendoo (MANDY MOORE) from Middle America. While he's attracted by her good looks, he also sees a bit of his manipulative, anything goes persona within her, meaning she's something of a kindred spirit. And with her fame-craving mother Martha (JENNIFER COOLIDGE) and new agent Chet (SETH MEYERS) willing to do anything to help her win, Sally decides to take back boyfriend William Williams (CHRIS KLEIN), only because his brief service in Iraq might win her more votes.

And some of the latter could come from newly reelected President Joseph Staton (DENNIS QUAID). Upon winning a second term in the White House, the dimwitted ruler has become something of a recluse after deciding to read the newspaper and learning there's more to the world than what Chief of Staff Wally (WILLEM DAFOE) has told him. As the First Lady (MARCIA GAY HARDEN) looks on, Wally realizes they have to do something to get the President's numbers back up, so he negotiates to get Staton on the final show as a guest judge. All of which draws the interest of Omer's handlers back in the Middle East. Sending a team to America to motivate him, they want Omer to make the finals and then kill the President.

OUR TAKE: 5 out of 10
The bigger and/or more famous a person, company or endeavor becomes, the more backlash eventually develops, along with the likelihood of them being spoofed on the likes of "Saturday Night Live," the late night talk shows and such. Those are good for punch lines or a several minute skit, but not a feature length film.

And that's exactly what bedevils "American Dreamz," director Paul Weitz's satire on our cultural obsession with today's hottest reality TV show as well as the current presidential administration. Spoofing "American Idol" and the Bush presidency, Weitz is entering unfamiliar territory and it shows.

After doing the first "American Pie" film with his brother Chris, he went on to helm the fabulous "About a Boy" and the good but not spectacular "In Good Company." Tapping his leads from those films to star in this one, the filmmaker has the correct intentions, but the results are only moderately satisfying.

In it, Dennis Quaid plays a dimwitted president who decides to start reading the newspaper following his successful reelection bid. Dismayed at what he discovers, he withdraws into his presidential shell, much to the dismay of Dick Cheney, uh, Karl Rove, wait, Willem Dafoe doing a combination of both in a bad skull cap playing the man who really runs the show.

Accordingly, Dafoe's character decides the Prez needs some good PR so he arranges to have him be a guest judge on the wildly popular "Idol" type show, "American Dreamz." Among the contestants is a faux white trash girl - played by Mandy Moore -- who only stays with her Iraq War veteran boyfriend - Chris Klein - because her agent thinks it will help garner some important audience votes.

Then there's Sam Golzari as an aspiring Arab terrorist who's so inept and in love with show tunes that he's shipped off to America to get him out of the way. When he accidentally makes it into the show, his handlers quickly realize that if he gets to the finals, he'll be on the stage with the President and thus just a song away from history.

And overseeing all of this is the amoral, self-loathing host and judge played by Hugh Grant who takes a special interest in Moore's character's bid to win. With all of that in play, the stage would seem to be set for a wickedly funny send-up of all of the above.

Alas, while it might sound inspired and/or funny in concept, its execution leaves much to be desired. Yes, there are a number of lines - also penned by Weitz - that range from amusing to funny to hilarious. And some of the individual moments and interactions are nicely played.

Overall, however, the film feels as if it wasn't fully cooked. Most of the ingredients are present, but they're not completely realized. The result is the impression that Weitz wasn't sure what to do with the material once he set it up or, worse yet, didn't have the guts to tear into the topics as furiously and/or imaginatively as needed.

For instance, the spoofing of a dimwitted puppet president never goes much beyond the superficial and predictable. There are plenty of chances for some rather clever or insightful satire, but the pic never dives in to any depths of note. And while Quaid is amusing in the role, he's given neither the time nor material to make his character memorable (but fares much better than Marcia Gay Harden who's completely wasted as the First Lady).

There's less opportunity to do much with the "Idol" material because that show already teeters on self-parody. All of the possible targets are touched upon (the group sing, various singer types, etc.) but few generate much beyond a level of knowing amusement for fans of the series. Best are the off-the-set moments between Moore (who, natch, gets to sing a bit) and Grant (always good at playing charming slime balls - but somewhat limp trying to do the acerbic Simon Cowell bit) as they realize they're kindred spirits.

The last of the big elements - the terrorist plot - doesn't really take off until the actual assassination attempt, but even that only generates a few random laughs, mostly visual in nature. Tony Yalda is rather funny as the effeminate diva who doesn't get his way thanks to his terrorist cousin, but that's about it (the visuals of seeing the terrorists watching the show are amusing only the first time around).

While the film does have something of a surprise ending, you'll likely wish the rest of the effort were as gutsy. Far better in concept than execution, "American Dreamz" most likely won't get enough viewer votes to make the final round of best comedy of the year. It rates as a 5 out of 10.

Reviewed March 30, 2006 / Posted April 21, 2006

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