Friday, April 28, 2006

American Dreamz

The biggest surprise in American Dreamz is that there are some genuine surprises in it. Halfway through the film, I was ready to say, gee, what a waste of talent, because all the actors are very good, but the script is a mess: it buries what might have been biting commentary on 21st century America in a pile of cheap shots a la Saturday Night Live.

Paul Weitz almost wrote and directed a really good movie, but not as good as Dr. Strangelove and Wag the Dog, the two films that come to mind when I think of this sort of political satire. It has their savagery but it lacks the detachment of really good satire. It's impressed with itself; it chuckles at its own (sometimes lame) jokes. Where Strangelove and Wag are razor sharp, it gets fuzzy from time to time: who is doing what now? Where are we?

The actors lift the film above its script. Particularly noteworthy are James Wood as Vice President who is eerily like a certain other powerful, balding VP, and Sam Golzari as Omer, the terrorist turned crooner. Marcia Gay Harden is low key but very good as a well-medicated First Lady, and Dennis Quaid pulls off the trick of satirizing George Bush while getting at the qualities that make the Red State folks love the guy so much.

Mandy Moore and her character were a disappointment. I could not help but compare her to a similar character played by Nicole Kidman in To Die For, about a small-town girl with a ruthless wish for stardom. Kidman knocked that one out of the park; her saccharine sociopath was terrifying and hysterical all at once. Sally Kendoo, Moore's character, says things like "I'd put toothpicks through my eyes and eat them to win this contest" but she's not bright enough to be really scary.

I give this film a reluctant thumb's up; the truth is that I had a good time at the movies, but it could have been a lot better. Next time, Weitz, get an editor!


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