Playwright George S. Kaufman is supposed to have once defined satire as “what closes on Saturday night.” The remark wasn’t entirely fair, but it did point up the difficulty of making edgy commentary on real affairs palatable to a mainstream audience. Recently “Thank You for Smoking” managed the feat by softening the message and smoothing the sharpness while keeping a lighthearted wit. Paul Weitz’s “American Dreamz” tries a similar tactic but goes way too far with it and stumbles badly. It offers observations on contemporary politics and show biz, but not only chooses obvious targets but adopts a crudely over-the-top, juvenile tone that smacks of Saturday Night Live’s leaner years. And it makes the cardinal error of trying to humanize the characters it’s lampooning to make you sympathize with their frailty. A real satire shouldn’t go touchy-feely, even only in passing.
Weitz’s tactic is to amalgamate three separate story strands. One involves a clueless president named Stanton (Dennis Quaid, doing a pretty good Bush impression) who’s content to be controlled by his political guru Wally (Willem Dafoe, with a phony bald pate and doing a generalized Karl Rove) until, in a post-reelection funk, he actually starts reading newspapers and finding out what’s going on in the world. The second is the titular TV show, a send-up of “American Idol,” which features Hugh Grant, in his element as a sharp-tongued, self-absorbed Brit host named Martin Tweed, who’s on the lookout for freakish performers to keep him on top of the Nielsen heap and pleased when Wally, hoping to hype his puppet’s failing popularity, offers the president himself as a guest host on the show’s big finale. This ties in with the third thread, about the two amateurs Tweed selects as his winning contestants. One is Sally Kendoo (shrill Mandy Moore), an ambitious white trash hussy whose just-dumped boyfriend (Chris Klein, doing his oblivious goofball shtick) volunteers for duty in Iraq and comes back an ever-so-slightly-wounded war hero. The other, Omer (slapsticky Sam Golzari), is a klutzy Al Quaeda recruit dispatched to live with relatives in California in order to bury him in a sleeper cell that will never be activated; but his love of Broadway show tunes earns him a spot on the show, and he’s abruptly assigned to blow up the president on national TV. (Tweed is unaccountably attracted to Sally, which has some unfortunate consequences, and he pairs off Omer against a rappin’ rabbi for symmetry’s sake.)
This farrago of comic ideas could theoretically yield rich satiric dividends, but Weitz’s touch is far too heavy, going at things with a meat cleaver rather than a scalpel. The White House material is puerile, even though Quaid is good and Marcia Gay Harden does a reasonable approximation of Laura Bush. It doesn’t even have the courage of its convictions, since in the final analysis Stanton may be a dumbbell, but he’s a lovable lunkhead, whose intentions are essentially good. (It’s frantic Wally who’s the villain of the piece, and he gets his comeuppance.) The jokes at the expense of Al Quaeda are about as sharp as the Indian material Peter Sellers did in “The Party,” but not nearly as well executed; Golzari’s main quality is eagerness, and his musical numbers–as well as Omer’s scenes with his flamboyant cousin Iqbal (Tony Yalda)–are like flaming nights out at amateur hour. (The bomb plot, needless to say, doesn’t go as planned. There are casualties, but they’re played for laughs, and by the time they occur the picture has already died.) That brings up the “American Idol” take-off, and though Grant does his nasty routine with zest, the material involving Moore, Klein, Jennifer Coolidge as Sally’s mother and Seth Meyers as a sleazy agent is like bad sitcom stuff–as is the rappin’ rabbi business.
On the technical side “American Dreamz” looks loud and brassy (the production design by William Arnold and cinematography by Robert Elswit are surprisingly tacky), and the budget appears to have been unable to bear the cost of a phony Oval Office–all the presidential scenes are played in the White House residence. Similarly, Stephen Trask’s bubbly score overemphasizes every weak plot turn.
It’s possible to adopt a larger-than-life satiric approach on controversial topics in films and make it work; just think of “Dr. Strangelove,” the best movie of its kind ever made, which certainly didn’t dampen down the size of its characters. But unlike Kubrick, Weitz has elected to tackle subjects that–let’s face it–are either already jokes (President Bush, Simon Cowell) or defanged by being turned into dumb slapstick, as in the case of the terrorist thread. And in either case, it deals with them in a clownish fashion while adding a dose of sentimentality in the hopes of mitigating any possible offense. The result is a simple-minded cartoon that aims for low-brow laughs rather than going for the jugular. Despite Mr. Kaufman’s dictum, it may not close on Saturday night, but it won’t around long and will soon be forgotten.