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Friday
Apr212006

American Dreamz

[National Review Online, April 21, 2006] 

The posters for "American Dreamz" are not real subtle: "Imagine a country where the President never reads the newspaper, where the government goes to war for all the wrong reasons, and where more people vote for a pop idol than their next president." Sounds like some lefties woke up feeling cranky on the day after Bush’s re-election. The film’s signature image, of Lady Liberty strutting in red thigh-high boots behind a microphone, reinforces the message that this is a rock-the-vote story for hip people, and squares need not apply.

But self-identified hip people who buy a ticket on the basis of this ad are likely to be disappointed. The film is much different from what’s advertised - much better, I would say. I expected something snarky, but found a film that was fundamentally good-natured and sincere. It’s funny, all right, but less a satire than a farce or parody. By the end, it’s even discovered some grounds for optimism. If I were a hip person, I would have wanted my money back.

"American Dreamz" alternates among a series of different characters, gradually drawing them together until they meet at a show biz event (much like Robert Altman’s "Nashville" thirty years ago, which this film resembles in some ways). President Staton (Dennis Quaid), contrary to what’s advertised, begins reading newspapers in his first scene. As he discovers how much he’s been shielded from (he learns, for example, that there are 3 different kinds of "Iraqistanis"), his hunger for knowledge grows. He spends weeks holed up in his bedroom behind towers of books and journals. He cancels his weekly briefings because he suspects his advisors weren’t giving him "the straight scoop." As he protests to the Vice President (Willem Dafoe), "Iran and Iraq are *not* just like Dr. Octopus and Magneto!"

Meanwhile, Martin Tweed (Hugh Grant), host of the top TV show "American Dreamz," is preparing for a new season. He’s smug, cynical, and manipulative (you’ve met his type in "Wag the Dog," "Broadcast News," and "Network"), but in private is almost suicidally self-loathing. When we meet him, he’s beating his head against a wall murmuring, "Please, not another season, please…" He gives his staff instructions to guide their talent search: he wants to see contestants who are human. "And by human, I mean flawed. And by flawed, I mean freaks. Go out there and bring me some freaks." (Speaking of "Wag the Dog," Tweed’s assistant Accordo, played by Judy Greer, seems a nod to the Anne Heche role in the earlier comedy.)

One bright idea is to have an Israeli and an Arab contestant. The Arab, Omer (Sam Golzari) is training for combat because, we’re told, his mother "was killed by an American bomb." But in addition to being mild and sweet-natured, Omer is also a total klutz. His commander sends him to live in California with his very assimilated cousins, who dwell in suburban elegance, dining at a glass-topped table with gold-plated flatware. The family’s theatrical son has submitted a tape to the "American Dreamz" competition, but when the TV crew arrives to tell him he’s been chosen, they find Omer in the basement soundstage instead, belting out showtunes recalled from his mother’s record collection. It’s Omer who ends up being selected for the show, and whose story supplies the third strand of the plot.

(We don’t get to see enough of the Israeli contestant, a recent immigrant to the U.S. named Sholem Glickstein [Adam Busch]. Fans of Hasidic reggae-rapper Matisyahu will appreciate this bombastic hip-hop star in a yarmulke, who wears a big gold "L’Chaim" pendant and growls "Let’s get raunchy tonight," backed by a wailing klezmer band.)

The fourth storyline is that of another show contestant, Sally Kendoo (Mandy Moore), a plump middle-class gal who finds it advantageous to be re-cast as white trash (her contest song is "Momma, Don’t Drink Me to Bed Tonight"). Sally has a dumb but doting boyfriend, William Williams (Chris Klein), but her first and only true love is herself. When she and Tweed meet, each discovers in the other is a disturbing and fascinating twin.

As these four stories interweave they become more compelling. There are plenty of clever lines, and some are startlingly astute, as when a self-absorbed character announces, not that she is not attracted to one sex or the other, but simply "I’m not attracted to other people." But the underlying mood of the film is generous. President Staton isn’t the sharpest knife in the drawer, but he’s "a good man" (as wife Marcia Gay Harden tells him in a touching scene), and when the moment of crisis comes, he meets it ably. There’s even sympathy for Tweed, who is more miserably lonely than anyone else in the film.

It’s been a long time since I’ve seen a movie this entertaining and thought-provoking. I’m looking forward to going again, and taking my family (it’s PG-13, so use discretion). "American Dreamz" ought to please and challenge most any filmgoer who’s not, you know, too cool for school.

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