Spoofing a show as obvious as Pop Idol is pretty easy. So is spoofing the Bush administration. But a decent script and a talented cast keep writer/director Paul Weitz's American Dreamz entertaining, even if it never manages anything profound.
Hugh Grant plays Martin Tweed, the detestable host of the eponymous TV show whose search for freak contestants turns up Sally Kendoo (Mandy Moore), an evil blonde who wants to be a star, and Omer (Sam Golzari), a sleeper terrorist who likes Broadway tunes.We follow the pair and their star-struck families from selection to the final round, where the US President (Dennis Quaid) is to be a guest judge in order to boost his own ratings. The stakes are high: Sally will kill herself if she doesn't win, and Omer's been ordered to kill himself with an exploding belt when he shakes the President's hand...
The humour is timely if simplistic: the President is uninformed, the starlets are hollow, the successful presenter not as happy as he appears to be. There are some digs at Christian politics ("I see North Korea launching an attack so I reach for my bible...") and the mantra of fear (asked if the President is unwell, his Chief of Staff evades the question by replying "Please, gentlemen. The terrorists will strike, not 'if' but 'when'").
The film avoids becoming an ensemble of dull reality-show types and sticks to its main characters, the 50 other contestants being disposed of in a five-minute montage that features mercifully little singing. The ending is very funny, as the various strands come together in screwball fashion.
Character comedy lives and dies on its performances, but they're all good. Dennis Quaid's goofing idiot savant is superb, although the first half wastes him on sitcom-style White House-bound scenes, and only at the film's conclusion does he get a chance to shine. Hugh Grant once again excels at loathsome and Mandy Moore does a better Britney Spears impression than she ever managed in real life, mixing icy arrogance with a childish impatience for the limelight. However, the pair's "romance" is let down by a total lack of chemistry, appropriate to the soulless characters ("I'm not usually sexually attracted to other people," remarks Sally) but forgettable for the viewer.
More uncomfortable is the inclusion of a "comedy terrorist" who we first meet doing pratfalls during a terrorist camp training video shoot. The ability to accept "terrorist" as a character type is an example of American culture at its most small-minded. However, once Omer gets out of the Middle East and into Orange County, he becomes the audience's point of contact: a mercifully polite and sensible straight man to his vacuous American cousins. His dignity remains more or less intact even whilst performing, although his political compass is quickly thrown away.
His terrorist bosses, however, are awkward guys with big beards drawn straight from the purile Team America. Despite their fanaticism they get caught up in the excitement of the TV contest. Even a film satirizing the awfulness of US trash TV can't escape the belief that everyone in the world cares about their trash.
The pace flags occasionally and several scenes are overlong; the film gives the impression of being written quickly and the characters tend to repeat themselves once established. Still, it's an entertaining hundred minutes if you don't mind the trivial subject matter.