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American Dreamz

Good Night and Good Luck

Considering the public's ongoing love affair with the "American Idol" television series, our unceasing embrace of celebrity culture, and the vexing behavior of our current president, it's not surprising that a film would emerge exposing the unholy mess we're in.

Director Paul Weitz eschews the roll-your-eyes comedy he employed in American Pie and Down to Earth and relies instead on incisive commentary, like that of In Good Company, where humor punctuated the moments of seriousness and political intent.

American Dreamz isn't as biting as its poster might suggest, but it comes close for Hollywood. Its theme is the "American dream" -- that ill-defined, overused catchphrase used equally well by Capitol Hill and Madison Avenue -- and how it means different things for different people, whether they're chasing it, doling it out, or intent on destroying it.

"It" is the phenomenally popular TV show "American Dreamz," which the remarkably arrogant Martin Tweed (Hugh Grant) hosts. (His first scene, which opens the film, sets the sarcastic tone for things to come.) Desperate to top what he's already done, he and his team stoop to new lows to find a crop of supremely untalented individuals to compete during the upcoming season.

Among those eager to participate in this hyperbolic shame-athon is Sally Kendoo (Mandy Moore), a real conniver whose made-for-TV relationship with her hapless Gulf War veteran boyfriend William Williams (Chris Klein) would appear to make her a shoo-in for the grand prize. (Williams' own short-lived stint in Iraq is a hoot.) As Kendoo and Tweed get to know each other, their bond becomes more and more self-serving. You know the laws of scriptwriting: at some point they must fall into each other's arms. And yet it's painful to watch because they're so right for each other.

Following close in second place is a recent immigrant from Afghanistan, Omer (Sam Golzari), whose purpose and presence in America are mysterious but whose effect on his rich suburban cousins disrupts their peaceful, mall-rat existence. Cousin Iqbal (Tony Yalda) is particularly galvanized; once he learns that Omer -- and not he -- is to be chosen as a contestant on "American Dreamz," this disco-obsessed queen takes it upon himself to coach Omer to fame, fortune, and the "Omerizing" of America.

Meanwhile, the President of the United States (Dennis Quaid) lives in a world devoid of newspapers -- or news sources of any kind, save for whatever his chief of staff (Willem Dafoe, channeling Karl Rove) tells him. One day after winning a second term in office, he finally decides to read the newspaper. To the consternation of his handlers, including the First Lady (Marcia Gay Harden), he ends up staying for weeks in bed reading paper after paper and book after book to play catch-up. Obviously patterned after President Bush, but not an exact match, this president exudes a respectable degree of innocence, earnestness, and willingness to better himself.

The connection between this president and the "American Dreamz" show may seem contrived but it's a match made in Sweeps Week heaven. Tweed wants him to be the judge at the series finale. While the president's chief of staff coaxes him to appear on the show to boost his sagging ratings, news of this goads Omer's leader to "activate" him, Manchurian Candidate-style.

With all these subplots vying for attention, the story becomes a pretty tangled web. Worse, the film loses its focus as it jumps around. Despite this unevenness, everything unravels in brazen fashion at the end. As one person's insipid singing is eclipsed by another person's stupid choice of action, the president must appear presidential without his secret earpiece functioning properly.

Unfortunately, the takeaway for many moviegoers will be "Well, that was really weird," not "Man, we're royally screwed." In trying hard not to offend, except those who truly deserve it, American Dreamz misses an important mark that should otherwise be easy to hit.

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars