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‘American Dreamz’ should be funnier

Satire of Bush and ‘American Idol’ quickly runs out of steam. By John Hartl

Dennis Quaid, who says he voted for President Bush in 2004, does a wicked impersonation of a remarkably similar U.S. President in writer-director Paul Weitz’s “American Dreamz,” a broad political farce that should be sharper and funnier than it is.

Still, it’s a treat to see Quaid tackle the role. He doesn’t mercilessly mimic Bush’s vocal mannerisms, as Chris Cooper did in “Silver City” and Will Forte does on “Saturday Night Live,” but he does capture the President’s amiable country-boy qualities in a way that no other actor has done before.

This is entirely in keeping with Weitz’s intentions. The movie begins with the President having won a second term and claiming a mandate — and just waking up to the fact that his Middle East policies aren’t working. He comes up with the novel idea of reading a newspaper, retreating to his bedroom as he discovers that the world isn’t as black-and-white as he’d been told.

He’s still under the control of a Cheney-like Chief of Staff (Willem Dafoe), who sees the papers spread around the President’s bedroom and wonders if he’s adopted a new puppy. Dafoe delights in scaring people with predictions that the end of the world is nigh, but the President is beginning to see through his act.

There’s still hope for this President, who may have a chance if he can escape the control of his puppet master. There’s zero hope for Martin Tweed (Hugh Grant at his most sly), a heartless cynic who runs the most popular show on television, an “American Idol”-style contest that earns its high ratings from his scathing putdowns of the less talented singers.

Among the latest contestants are the ambitious Sally (a perfectly cast Mandy Moore), who is just as manipulative and hollow-hearted as Tweed, and Omer (Sam Golzari), an almost accidental terrorist. He was raised on show tunes and has been assigned to blow up the President, who is scheduled to appear as a judge on the show.

Omer is such a natural showman that he sends the nation into an orgy of  “Omer-Mania” even as he’s preparing for the suicide bombing. He does know how to turn a standard into his own statement. In the cheesy context of the show, he manages to transform both “The Impossible Dream” and “My Way” into terrorist anthems.

Golzari, a relative unknown, steals most of his scenes, although he faces tough competition from actors who have appeared in other Weitz movies. Quaid played a threatened sales executive in Weitz’s “In Good Company,” while Grant was an unlikely father figure in Weitz’s “About a Boy” — both of them better pictures than “American Dreamz.”

Weitz doesn’t seem to know what to do with the rest of his cast, including Marcia Gay Harden (as the First Lady), Shohreh Aghdashloo and “Saturday Night Live's” Seth Meyers. There’s a slackness to much of the film, which runs out of ideas well before its 107 minutes are exhausted. It’s more successful as a time capsule than it is as an entertainment.