reviewed by Steve Sailer
The American Conservative, May 22, 2006
"... and the screenplay practically writes itself!"
It's hard to avoid suspecting that's how filmmaker Paul Weitz ended his pitch to Universal of the clever concept and casting for his roman à clef comedy "American Dreamz."
Having made "About a Boy" with Hugh Grant in 2002 and "In Good Company" with Dennis Quaid in 2005, both solid films, it must have seen only natural to Weitz (son of fashion designer turned historian John Weitz) to cast the two veterans together.
After dithering away the early years of his career as a fluttery romantic lead, Grant has emerged since 2001's "Bridget Jones' Diary" as Hollywood's finest cad, a worthy successor to the sardonic George Sanders. So why not have Grant play a self-loathing game show host based on Simon Cowell, the scathing English judge on the top-rated television show of the decade, American Idol?
Back in the 1980s, Quaid's status was a lot like Ronald Reagan's in the early 1940s -- a likeable and reliable second-tier leading man. Then, Quaid wrecked his career with cocaine. He has made a comeback playing middle-aged Texans (winningly in "The Rookie" as a washed up minor leaguer, and distressingly in "The Alamo" as a Sam Houston who seems to be suffering from a gastrointestinal malady). So, let's cast him as a clueless doofus based on George W. Bush!
But how exactly do Simon and George wind up in the same movie?
Well, uh … the President could come down with clinical depression when he finally realizes how unqualified he is for the job. His chief-of-staff, a Dick Cheney / Karl Rove Svengali played by Willem Dafoe, then books him on American Dreamz as a guest judge to boost his polls. A show tunes-loving Iraqi immigrant contestant, whose mother was killed by American bombs, is assigned by Osama bin Laden to blow up the President. But are 72 virgins enough to persuade Omer to forego singing "The Impossible Dream" to 72 million viewers? And as the suicide-bomber's main rival, Mandy Moore plays a rural ingénue who turns out as media-savvy and manipulative as Paris Hilton.
Unfortunately, screenplays don't actually write themselves, and Weitz never quite figured out whether he wanted all this complicated plotting to wind up brutally satirical or sweetly silly. "American Dreamz" isn't a bad movie, but his script is too on-the-nose to be terribly funny.
One problem with "American Dreamz" as a satire is that American Idol is one of those rare pop culture phenomena, like the Who Wants to Be a Millionaire quiz show a half dozen years ago, that just isn't all that deplorable. Idol's basic appeal is ancient: it's a singing contest for the whole family to watch. And its most controversial feature -- Simon's blunt advice to many entrants to discard their dreams and get a real job, something that powerful men in the music industry are not always known for saying when confronted with pretty but talentless girls desperate for a break -- is also its most admirable. (If you wonder how movie people can be so self-righteous despite their often dubious personal behavior, one answer lies in their ability to say, "Hey, at least we're not music executives.")
Quaid's portrayal of Bush is merely a more sympathetic version of Chris Cooper's take on the President as an utter nimrod in John Sayles's 2004 flop "Silver City." (So far, the only fictional version of Bush to show much insight has been Hoyt Thorpe, the malevolent but brave and charismatic frat boy in Tom Wolfe's I Am Charlotte Simmons.)
Sneering at Bush's IQ hasn't helped Democrats yet. The only election Bush ever lost was his 1978 run for Congress from Midland, when his Democratic opponent taunted him for earning two Ivy League degrees. That was the last time any rival outdumbed him.
As I demonstrated in 2004, Bush slightly outscored John Kerry on their military officer qualification IQ exams. (When NBC's Tom Brokaw mentioned my analysis to Kerry, he replied, "I must have been drinking the night before I took that military aptitude test.") And last summer, it emerged that Kerry's grade point average at Yale was below Bush's.
No, Bush isn't dumb. Instead, he is hypercompetitive and aware of how little competence matters in winning Presidential elections these days. Now, though, he's done running for President and finally has to start running the government.
Rated PG-13 for brief strong language and some sexual references.
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