Simon Cowell plays Simon Cowell so well that it'd take a hell of an arrogant prick to satirize him.
Enter Hugh Grant. The usually mild and well-mannered Brit has played a prat before under writer-director Paul Weitz' direction (About a Boy), but in the American Idol-spoofing American Dreamz, he's never as nasty as you want him to be.
Which is hard to figure, because the butts of American Dreamz' jokes are emblazoned with bright, neon, Day-Glo bullseyes. A terrorist cell, a pop-princess wannabe, an arrogant TV show host and a dimwitted president could there be easier targets? Leno and Letterman seem to have no trouble hitting them night after night.
So you'd hope Weitz (also responsible for American Pie) would take advantage of the big screen, sharpening his claws, baring his fangs and sinking them deep into the mire of American pop and political culture. Yet, Dreamz only manages a rib-tickling brand of funny a fit-for-mass-consumption, easily digestible sense of humor.
How can Weitz have missed?
Grant plays Tweed, the unlovable and loathsome Cowell-like judge and host of a TV karaoke contest called American Dreamz. The show's ratings are as huge as Tweed's ego, in part because he pushes his producers to find fresh freaks for each season. This time they score with a trifecta of freakdom: Omer, a show tunes-loving, failed terrorist-in-training (Sam Golzari); Sally, a countrified bumpkin with a diva's ambition (Mandy Moore); and Sholem, an Orthodox Jew who busts rhymes like a true playa (Adam Busch).
Meanwhile, in Washington, the president (Dennis Quaid, who claimed to have voted for Bush in '04) picks up a newspaper, presumably for the first time, and realizes there's "a lot of stuff in here." This sets off a nervous breakdown, and his handlers try to temper it with happy pills and a public appearance on Tweed's show.
With the president booked to judge the finale, Omer's terror cell past catches up with him, and he's coerced into smuggling a bomb to take out the president.
Too often, the truth is funnier than Weitz' fiction. Missing is that cringe-factor that makes a nightly montage of Bush gaffes on The Daily Show or the constant parade of hopeful rejects on American Idol such addictive TV. We cringe because there's truth in it; it's uncomfortable laughter. In Dreamz, however, Weitz' jabs are no harder than a sneer from Cowell or a disbelieving head-shake from Jon Stewart. There's nothing here that any couch potato with a quick trigger-thumb can't glean on his own from a night of TV.
For Dreamz to take down the same topics, it needs more bite; but the movie has its moments, mostly thanks to Weitz' knack for utter buffoonery (American Pie's pastry sex topping them all). This time he gives us Omer's fem, mallrat, Orange County cousin Iqbal (Tony Yalda) doing drag versions of pop tunes on a homemade stage in the family basement. And Yalda's scenes managing Omer are pure camp gold. (He gives him the catchphrase, "You've just been Omer-ized," and stages some hilariously vile choreography.)
However, as you watch Golzari's big number an earnest version of "The Impossible Dream" Weitz' ultimate failure is apparent. Golzari's singing is bad, but not bad enough.
Weitz would have been better to channel some of Trey Parker's unabashed irreverence (the South Park co-creator makes a cameo as a "Rockin' Man," Bo Bice-esque contestant). As any American Idol winner would tell you, when you've got the spotlight, it's no time to hold back.
Clare Pfeiffer Ramsey writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.