Producers: Paul Dektor, Theodore Melfi, Peter Dinklage, Kimberly Quinn, David Ginsberg and Toyo Shimano   Director: Paul Dektor   Screenplay: Theodore Melfi   Cast: Peter Dinklage, Shirley MacLaine, Matt Dillon, Danny Glover, Kimberly Quinn, Danny Pudi, Michelle Mylett, Rebecca Olson, Kimberley Shoniker, Peter Kelamis, Raresh DiMofte, Frank Bailey and Garry Chalk   Distributor: Vertical

Grade: B-

Peter Dinklage is so adept at delivering scowls and bile-rich dialogue, and Theodore Melfi so prodigal in supplying him with ripe lines, that Paul Dektor’s debut feature can’t help but provide some big laughs.  A funny turn by an acerbic Shirley MacLaine and solid support from Matt Dillon and Danny Glover don’t hurt, either.  The plot has too many holes in it—despite being inspired, we’re told, by a true story—but though the construction is ramshackle, the cast makes “American Dreamer” more enjoyable than not.

The dreamer of the title is Dinklage’s Phil Loder, an adjunct economics professor at Brockton University in Massachusetts whose grumpy, bedraggled persona and unorthodox views sometimes infuriate colleagues like his chair Craig (Danny Pudi), but entrance some of his students. One example is Clare (Michelle Mylett), whose interest in him proves far more than academic, fulfilling Phil’s fantasies about being lovingly tended to by two gorgeous women (Rebecca Olson and Kimberley Shoniker).

The setting of these hallucinations is always a sumptuous house, another obsession of Loder’s.  Living in a drab apartment, he’s constantly searching internet ads and attending showings of places astronomically beyond his price range, courtesy of indulgent realtor Dell (Matt Dillon).  All this while trying to cajole Craig into finally coming up with a decent campus parking space though putting off reading his latest publication.

Lightning finally strikes when he spies a listing a $5 million estate for $240,000 with a condition—that the current owner be allowed to live in it rent-free until she dies, the purchaser to occupy the servant quarters downstairs and be responsible for upkeep costs until her demise.  Just barely able to scrape up the quarter million by cashing out all his accounts and selling everything he owns, including his aged SAAB, and being assured by Dell after a cursory examination that the place is in good shape and the owner definitely not, Phil takes the deal. 

It soon becomes apparent, however, that Astrid Finnelli (MacLaine), the prickly ex-owner, is not at death’s door.  In fact, she’s remarkably vigorous.  And it turns out she has “kids”—a heavily-accented plumber (Raresh DiMofte) called in when Phil’s shower malfunctions and Maggie Pennington (Kim Quinn), a lawyer who’s taken aback by the deal Astrid’s made and quick to express her opposition to it.  Loder engages Jerry (Danny Glover), an aged private eye and friend of Dell’s, to look into it all.

Meanwhile Phil, now reduced to taking a scooter to work, tries to find out more by sneaking around the upper floors, suffering a series of slapstick injuries in the process.  Yet he also intervenes when Astrid accidentally falls, saving her life although his actions are treated as suspicious not only by Maggie but by the bumbling cops (Peter Kelamis and Frank Bailey) called in to investigate.  The result is that he and Astrid develop a bond that grows increasingly affectionate, and eventually he’ll learn the truth behind her “kids” and make an unexpected decision.

There are weaknesses in the movie, both logical and structural.  The premise on which the scenario is based—Astrid’s plan to sell the mansion and remain there as a live-in—is never explained; one has to assume that she foresees how things will turn out for it to make any sense.  And the choice to frame the narrative through the first lines of successive chapters in a novel Loder’s writing—another of his ambitions—which, of course, is a romanticized version of what’s actually happening in his life, strikes one as a mere screenwriting crutch.  (It doesn’t help that Phil, so fastidious in his use of language, in one instance types that the relationship “between he and the lady of the manor” is progressing, without immediately correcting it.)  So when the attempt to link together all the threads at the end comes, it’s no surprise that it comes off as clumsier than Phil is himself.

The movie looks fine for an indie production.  Cinematographer Nicolas Bolduc and production designer Eric Fraser employ the locations—in Victoria, British Columbia—well, and editor Lisa Robison keeps things moving nicely while allowing the snappy dialogue time to breathe and the cast the opportunity to savor it.  Jeff Rus’s score doesn’t italicize the humor too much, either.

“American Dreamer” has been sitting on the shelf for a while: it was filmed in 2021 and made the festival rounds the following year.  Usually such a delay bodes ill.  In this case, though, the movie arrives as flawed but engaging, marked not only by the serendipitous coupling of Dinklage and MacLaine but stellar support from Dillon, Glover and Pudi.