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PLAYING POLITICS BUMBLING WHITE HOUSE, BANAL TV TALENT COMPETITIONS COLLIDE IN `AMERICAN DREAMZ'.

Byline: Glenn Whipp Film Writer

Make a movie like ``American Dreamz'' where a young Arab suicide bomber with a fondness for Broadway show tunes looks to blow up the president of the United States on an ``American Idol''-like variety show, and you have a potential problem. Particularly when the film's clueless, deer-in-the-headlights president walks and talks like George W. Bush and his intensely controlling chief of staff looks suspiciously like Dick Cheney.

``If anything happened in the world - an assassination attempt, a terrorist attack, whatever - this movie could have been utterly unreleasable,'' says ``Dreamz'' writer-director Paul Weitz. ``That was a little disconcerting. But then again, if something terrible had taken place, whatever happened to my film would have been of secondary importance. I don't think anyone would lose any sleep over it.''

Well, Universal Pictures, the film's distributor, might have missed a wink or two. But, as Weitz notes, once he decided to make the $19 million political satire, and once the studio signed off on it, it wasn't the kind of project you could second-guess.

``I wrote it quickly and got it going quickly,'' says Weitz, known for his collaborations with brother Chris on ``About a Boy'' and the first ``American Pie'' movie. ``Otherwise, I figured there was a good chance I'd back out.''

Says Quaid, who starred in Weitz's last movie, ``In Good Company'': ``I didn't even have to read the script. Politically, I know where Paul stands. And it's a good place. It's a positive place. It may not be in agreement with the Bush administration, but it's not mean-spirited, either.''

The dark-humored ``Dreamz,'' which opens in theaters today, has four different plot strands that become intertwined by film's end. President Joe Staton (Quaid) has just been re-elected, but the good news can't seem to get him out of his pajamas. He's tired of being a puppet, dancing to the orchestrations of his manipulative chief of staff (Willem Dafoe, bald and bulky). Staton wants to do something crazy. He wants to read the newspaper and see what's going on in the world. Martin Tweed (Hugh Grant) is also afflicted with self-loathing, even though he is the host of America's most popular TV show, ``American Dreamz.'' Fame and fortune haven't done anything for Martin, but the program's contestants don't care. One of them, Sally (Mandy Moore), will do anything to win, even getting back together with the boyfriend she dumped (Chris Klein) simply because he's now a wounded war veteran.

And then there's the aforementioned suicide bomber, Omer (Sam Golzari), a reluctant terrorist who accidentally lands a spot on the ``American Dreamz'' program, setting into motion the plot to kill the president, who is appearing on the variety show's finale - to reassure voters he's A-OK - as a celebrity judge. Weitz acknowledges that ``Dreamz'' comes stuffed with story, but he wanted to tie together the similar ways that entertainment programs and politicians are sold as products, as well as the idea that having a dream - something Weitz calls central to the American character - can sometimes make it impossible to deal with reality.

``Self-importance and self-obsession are part of the core of American culture,'' Weitz says. ``So much of our identity comes from having dreams and aspirations. That can be a positive thing, obviously, but it can also put the blinders on. I think the Bush administration went into Iraq thinking it was going to be easy to turn a dictatorship into a democracy. That was the dream, but the reality proved quite different. Look what happened.''

Much has been made of whether moviegoers are ready for a movie like ``United 93'' (also made by Universal) that depicts the events of 9/11. But are people going to be OK with a satire that has a suicide bomber looking to assassinate the president on national television?

``If it was funny, they would be,'' says David Poland, a film columnist and editor for the Movie City News Web site.

Poland, who saw ``Dreamz'' last month at the Bermuda International Film Festival, says the bigger problem facing the movie is its straddling of genres.

``If they sold it as a political satire, maybe it could open,'' Poland says. ``But they are trying to throw everything in the movie at the wall and see what sticks, and that is always the recipe for a flop.

``Unfortunately for Universal,'' Poland adds, ``even mocking `American Idol' is not a win because the show and (judge) Ms. (Paula) Abdul are so over the top already.''

Weitz knows this. He's a smart, thoughtful guy.

``You can't more effectively parody `American Idol' or the presidency because they effectively do that themselves,'' Weitz says. ``But I think there's a place for a movie that looks at this bizarre situation where important events are drowned out by mass entertainment. You have to wonder: If Watergate were to happen today, would anything come of it, or would people be too busy voting for `American Idol'?''

Says Quaid: ``At the end of the day, we've got to be able to laugh at ourselves. Remember, we elected these guys - twice.''

Glenn Whipp, (818) 713-3672

glenn.whipp(at)dailynews.com

THEY SURE LOOK - AND ACT - FAMILIAR

Dennis Quaid and Willem Dafoe don't play Bush-Cheney types in ``American Dreamz.'' For all intents and purposes, they are playing Bush and Cheney.

Quaid possesses Bush's easy athleticism and ably affects W's perpetual smirk and puzzlement.When asked why he got into politics, Quaid's prez shrugs: ``My mom wanted to show my dad that any idiot can do it.''

``It's not an impersonation, but there's a lot of Bush in there,'' Quaid says. ``I studied him, his walk, his mannerisms, certainly his accent. But there's a little bit of Reagan in there, too, the way the guy's not quite up to speed on what's going on. Basically, I tried to make him as human as possible.

``Because, when the movie starts, the guy doesn't feel like a human being any more. He is being told what to do, what to say, what position to take. And he doesn't like it. The problem is, he doesn't know how to do any of these things on his own. That's when he makes the huge leap and announces, `I'm gonna read the newspaper.''' Quaid says with a laugh. ``Well, it's not such a huge leap, but it is for this guy.''

Dafoe's character is the president's chief of staff, but given that he's bald and paunchy, wears wire-rimmed glasses and a constant look of self-satisfaction, the Cheney connection is clear.

``It was a surprise that I looked so much like him,'' Dafoe says.

``I needed a physical mask, and this is what I got. As far as Cheney's manner ... it snuck up on me. I didn't study him, but his image and manner must be so imprinted on my brain that it just came out.''

As to why he made the characters so particular to their Washington counterparts, ``American Dreamz'' writer-director Paul Weitz, explains, ``I thought it would be more perverse and edgy to drag in stuff that is real.''

When it's mentioned that you don't see such specificity in movies much, Weitz laughs.

``Well ...'' he says, musing. ``I guess we'll find out if there's a reason for that.''

- G.W.

CAPTION(S):

4 photos, box

Photo:

(1 -- cover -- color) GAME FACE

`American Dreamz' puts politics, parody on the same team

(2) U.S. President Staton (Dennis Quaid, left), wanting to keep his finger on the pulse of America, takes a turn as celebrity game-show judge, with Hugh Grant as the show's self- loathing host, in ``American Dreamz.''

(3) Director Paul Weitz: "I think there's a place for a movie that looks at this bizarre situation where important events are drowned out by mass entertainment."

(4) The president (Quaid) and his chief of staff (Willem Dafoe) look more than a littlle like President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney.

Box:

THEY SURE LOOK - AND ACT - FAMILIAR (see text)
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Apr 21, 2006
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