A good-old-boy president from Texas becomes guest judge on a TV talent show in the midst of his war in Iraq. A trailer-trash contestant fixates on the show as her ticket to fame. A Middle East terrorist is torn between martyring himself or trying to win the show himself.
Just another day in America according to filmmaker Paul Weitz, whose "American Dreamz" is a satirical romp through our pop-culture obsessions and geopolitical anxieties.
"I think that comedy can act like an anesthetic, so you can talk about relatively painful things and have it be palatable," said writer-director Weitz ("American Pie," "About a Boy"). "In terms of the best things someone could say about the movie, at the first public screening, a guy said, 'I'm stressed out about all these things on a daily basis, but for an hour and a half, I found myself laughing at them.'"
"American Dreamz," which opens Friday, stars Dennis Quaid as a George W. Bush-esque president, who awakens one day and decides to read a newspaper rather than take his usual morning dose of TV. Soon, he's holed up in the White House and reading obsessively, jolted out of his lifelong mental fog with the realization that "there's a lot of stuff in here."
To get him back in the public eye, his puppetmaster chief of staff (Willem Dafoe) signs up the president to appear on "American Dreamz," an "American Idol"-type TV show hosted by a cynical Brit (Hugh Grant).
Thrown into the mix is a pudgy, rural nobody (Mandy Moore) relentlessly pursuing stardom on "American Dreamz" and her main competition, a reluctant terrorist (Sam Golzari) who adores show tunes and is assigned to blow himself and the president up during the show's finale.
"It's really a story that makes as much fun of the body politic as any particular politicians," said Dafoe, whose chief of staff character resembles Dick Cheney and acts like a Karl Rove behind-the-scenes kingpin. "It makes fun of how we got to this place where there's a lot of politics in entertainment and a lot of entertainment in politics."
Weitz said the idea hit him almost fully formed while awaiting the release of his last movie, "In Good Company," also starring Quaid. He wondered whether he could make a comedy about all the serious and frivolous things Americans were obsessing on nowadays.
"I would start my day reading the papers and feeling anxious about terrorism and worrying about whether the administration had an exit strategy from Iraq, then by evening, I was watching TV and worrying about whether Constantine was going to get kicked off `American Idol,'" Weitz said. "I thought there was something strange about this picture."
Marcia Gay Harden, who plays the first lady in an often eerily spot-on emulation of Laura Bush, said "American Dreamz" is more about shallow television culture than Washington politics or global crises.
"Here's a political satire that's poking fun at this particular moment in America, where celebrity is completely revered and where war has almost become reality television," Harden said. "It questions at what cost fame, and questions it rather searingly, but with a great sense of humor."
Weitz said he wanted to avoid a "Saturday Night Live" spoof of the Bushes, but he did encourage Quaid and Harden whenever mannerisms reminiscent of the president and first lady would creep into the performances.
The premise makes it sound as if "American Dreamz" were pure Bush-bashing. Yet even though they pop "happy pills" and call each other "Poopie," Quaid's clueless president and Harden's first lady wind up being the film's most human and sympathetic characters.
"If someone really wanted a scathing parody of the administration, they're probably going to be disappointed, because the movie has a fantasy element of that character being awakened," Weitz said. "He doesn't magically become extremely intelligent, but he does start trying to come to terms with the real world."