Slumbering satire in sour 'Dreamz'

The time is certainly ripe for a scathing black comedy about our current political life - something on the order of, say, "Dr. Strangelove." Alas, "American Dreamz" is not that film. Not even close.

Hugh Grant plays the appropriately named Martin Tweed, the unctuous British host of the "American Idol"-ish smash, "American Dreamz." Tweed's face is creased in a perpetual smirk; he wears his self-loathing, which is indistinguishable from self-satisfaction, like a lizard skin.

His counterpart is Dennis Quaid's President Staton, who has just won reelection. For the first time in four years, he decides to read the newspaper, an act which tailspins him into a depressive funk. He sits around all day in his pajamas until his chief of staff (a baldpated Willem Dafoe, looking like Dick Cheney) comes up with the brainstorm of booking Staton as a guest judge on the president's favorite TV show - you guessed it, "American Dreamz."

This is just the beginning. Writer-director Paul Weitz ("American Pie," "About a Boy") is by no means without talent, but his reach far exceeds his grasp here. If he had kept the film focused on Tweed and the president, he might have scored a few lampoonish moments. But he also works in a pair of competing "American Dreamz" hopefuls, the gimlet-eyed Midwestern crooner Sally Kendoo (Mandy Moore) and Omer (Sam Galzari), an Arab terrorist recruit with a taste for show tunes. Omer's sleeper cell has plans to assassinate Staton on the studio set.

Weitz doesn't have the chops for satire, let alone black comedy. For one thing, shows like "American Idol" already do a very good job of making fun of themselves. It's possible to make a political black comedy that mixes blood with slapstick - both "Strangelove" and "The Manchurian Candidate" did it - but to pull it off you need a comic vision and not just a joke book.

The Arab stereotyping - including most flagrantly Omer's gay relative Iqbal (Tony Yalda), who aches to be on TV - is not pretty. And the thinly disguised jabs at President Bush - Staton even apologizes for Iraq in front of the TV audience - are so inept that you might think Karl Rove had a hand in all this as a covert way of drumming up sympathy for our president. If Weitz really wanted to satirize the current administration, he did himself no favors by portraying everybody as bumblers. It's not the bumbling that drives opponents crazy; it's the well-honed insidiousness.

Is Weitz saying that all the world's a sound stage, that politics and show business have become indistinguishable? If so, he doesn't go nearly far enough. What he doesn't fully comprehend is that the techniques of political discourse are now virtually indistinguishable from the way that the Hollywood public-relations ma-chine works. The whammo hard-sell, the feel-good photo-ops, the co-option of the press for favorable coverage - it all bears the heavy imprint of the marketeer mentality. Maybe Weitz can't see the real story here because he's too much a part of Hollywood. Those designer sunglasses can blind you. Grade: D

Rated PG-13 for brief strong language and sexual references.

Sex/Nudity: 6 scenes of innuendo or implied sex. Violence: 3 scenes. Profanity: 3 strong instances, 29 milder. Drugs/Alcohol/Tobacco: 6 scenes with drinking.

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