President George Bush and "American Idol" creator/producer/judge Simon Cowell are the principal targets here, with Dennis Quaid and Hugh Grant stepping in as their respective doppelgangers. Quaid's President Staton is a well-meaning but dim-witted leader whose bruising re-election campaign has left him a few clowns short of a circus. A continent away is Grant's Martin Tweed, a self-absorbed Brit-twit hopelessly bored with success and the mundane routine of his ridiculously popular show, "American Dreamz." Contrary to the film's marketing slogan, the contrivance that arranges for the two men to answer each other's call has less to do with American voting habits than a more generalized obsession with celebrity culture -- a resolutely silly machination so far-fetched that writer/director Paul Weitz doesn't even bother trying to smooth it over. Instead, he plays it up, piling on even sillier subplots involving a conniving Dick Cheney-like presidential chief-of-staff (Willem Dafoe) and a pair of "Dreamz" contestants -- Mandy Moore as a ruthlessly ambitious small-town singing sensation and Sam Golzari as a showtune-loving terrorist with stars in his eyes -- that only underline the total absurdity of the exercise.
As both a director and writer, oftentimes working with brother Chris, Weitz has covered some pretty disparate bases, from the broad comedy of "American Pie" to the more grounded drama-comedy fusion of "About a Boy" and "In Good Company." But this is the first time he's tackled anything this broad, and it's not a particularly comfortable arrangement. Part of the problem is that he's dealing with material that four years of late-night monologues and comedy sketches have already beaten into dust, though the greater hitch is that the pop culture contrast on which the film is predicated never really feels like anything but a forced concoction. It's as though Weitz is trying to work out his own ambivalence on a wide variety of topical issues, walking a tightrope between pessimism and optimism, yet ever mindful of the need for a reliably commercial safety net.
"American Dreamz" will almost certainly disappoint die-hard cynics expecting a satire with real teeth. After all, this is still a studio film, a commodity mainstreamed for mass consumption by the same vast swath of middlebrow America that continues to provide both the Bush Administration and "American Idol" with their most reliable base of support. That's not to say it doesn't have bite -- it's just not about to bite the hand that feeds it. Starring Hugh Grant, Dennis Quaid, Mandy Moore, Marcia Gay Harden, Chris Klein, Jennifer Coolidge, Willem Dafoe, Sam Golzari and Shohreh Agdashloo. Directed and written by Paul Weitz. Produced by Rodney M. Liber, Andrew Miano, Paul Weitz and Chris Weitz. A Universal release. Comedy. Rated PG-13 for brief strong language and some sexual references. Running time: 107 min