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How could ‘Dreamz’ miss such an easy target?

Reality TV is actually more compelling than a movie about reality TV. By Andy Dehnart
/ Source: contributor

The new film “American Dreamz” is about a depressed President of the United States, a would-be suicide bomber who likes showtunes and an injured and scorned Iraq war veteran. But as its title suggests, there's no question that the movie's real subject is “American Idol,” the insanely popular FOX talent search reality series that's now in its fifth season.

With years of material to work with, “American Dreamz” director and writer Paul Weitz certainly had plenty to make fun of. On “American Idol,” contestants have been eliminated for assaulting their sisters and appearing on adult Web sites; one judge was accused of having an affair with a contestant, while the host regularly suggests that at least one of the judges is drunk.

Contestants are eliminated in increasingly cruel ways after they tape commercials for one of the sponsors that the show hawks relentlessly. And each season begins with a parade of delusional idiots who have watched the show on television and know what it takes to get themselves some camera time. And that's to say nothing of the people who make it on the show and surprise us with their strange and fascinating personalities every week, from Kelly Clarkson to Mandisa, Clay Aiken to Kevin Covais.

With such rich subject matter, it's almost impossible to believe that “American Dreamz” is as bad as it is. Besides failing to entertain or engage, the movie is satire without the irony, and parody without the ridicule.

Who knew ‘Idol’ had more than one dimension?“American Idol” is far more ridiculous and unpredictable than its fictional counterpart, and thus the whole exercise seems kind of pointless. The movie is merely a series of clichés that lack the emotional core of original metaphor, however trite and cheesy it may be.

While there are some amusing moments in “American Dreamz,” the movie mostly attempts to make fun of “American Idol” without any wit or over-the-top humor. Instead of making fun of some aspect of the TV show, the movie typically shows a character imitating “Idol,” which isn't very funny at all. After all, if we wanted the real thing, we'd just watch TV.

For example, at one point, “American Dreamz” host and judge Martin Tweed (Hugh Grant) is handed a Pepsi and told that, contractually, he needs to drink it on air. Aside from the fact that the “American Idol” judges drink out of Coca-Cola cups, there's no difference at all between this scene and the actual show.

Unless the subject is impossibly absurd or completely outrageous, making fun of something is typically about more than just showing it. But that's pretty much what “American Dreamz” does: It shows us a version of the real “American Idol” with a different name and swollen features, and then expects us to laugh.

The movie's political characters, for example, don't even need fictional names because they're just bad copies of their real-life counterparts, including George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and Laura Bush. Except for a few amusing moments, the actors just parrot their models.

The same is true for the host of “American Dreamz.” Martin Tweed is obviously a stand-in for “Idol” judge Simon Cowell. If the British accent, unmitigated selfishness and greed, and outrageously sarcastic comments aren't clues enough, his tight black T-shirt confirms who he's supposed to be.

It's just all too familiar. Simon Cowell is on TV for half the year, and we already know him. Why do we need a fictional version of him, too? A bland Hugh Grant impersonation is an SNL skit at best.

Those parts of “Idol” that the filmmakers changed only blunt the satire even more. Tweed is not just the sole judge of “American Dreamz,” he's also its host. In addition, Tweed is in charge of producing the show and is sleeping with the contestants. In other words, all of “American Idol’s” adults are collapsed into one.

That destroys the true fun of “Idol,” which comes from watching the interplay between judges Simon Cowell, Paula Abdul, Randy Jackson and host Ryan Seacrest.

Making you long for Jon Peter LewisWhen the movie does take its presentation of its subject past “American Idol’s” real universe into the fictional, it wanders drunkenly into a realm that's unrecognizable.

The fake contestants, like Mandy Moore's Sally Kendoo, are recognizable physical archetypes; during one performance montage, “Idol” fans will have fun pointing out which actor is playing which cast member (Bo Bice! John Stevens!). But they aren't familiar “Idol” personalities, who generally appear to be somewhat out of their element and thus are endearing to the people who vote for them.

It's a difference in dimension; the “Dreamz” contestants — of whom we only really meet two — are flat characters, despite the minor changes they undergo as the plot unfolds. With better writing, they might have mirrored some of the things we love about “Idol” contestants, whether they're humble or arrogant, ugly or hot. “American Idol” is a reality show instead of a fictional drama because real people are far more unbelievable and unpredictable.

On “American Dreamz,” the contestants are admittedly fame-hungry and excessively media-savvy, and while undoubtedly “Idol” has had contestants who are that way, it's not something we really see on the show. Never mind the fact that there are a thousand other things about “Idol” that are far more worthy of scorn than the possibility that a contestant is using the show to get famous.

With “American Dreamz,” director/writer Weitz seems to be saying that what's on television and in the White House is so absurd, that all he needs to do is show a fictional version so we'll understand the absurdity. But since his movie lacks any significant satire or argumentative thesis beyond the obvious, it comes across as a condescending primer for those who don't know that “American Idol” really isn't about fulfilling kids' wishes or that George W. Bush doesn't read newspapers.

Worse, the tone of the movie's ending is wildly different than the rest of the movie and thus rather uncomfortable, suggesting cynicism and hatred for what the rest of the movie basically embraces.

‘Idol’ overloadWhy do we need a movie for any of this, especially one released while “American Idol” is presently on the air for two or three nights a week? A film version would make sense if it did something more than imitate and mirror what's on TV, but it doesn't attempt to do that. And is it even possible to parody something that's already a largely a joke?

At its best, “American Dreamz” is a fantastic argument for reality television's appeal. The movie's characters are one-dimensional and obviously fictional, so the audience has no emotional connection to them. Listening to Tweed insult the contestants is exactly like listening to Simon Cowell insult the contestants on “American Idol”; to one, he says, “You make me want to projectile vomit,” and he calls another a “musical Ebola virus.”

Funny, perhaps, but on “Idol,” unlike Tweed's fake lines, there's the chance that Simon Cowell's comments will have consequences beyond making the audience laugh with throwaway scripted lines.

And watching Paula Abdul mutter something incomprehensible and content-less is far more entertaining. No one, not even the producers or the network, know what she's going to say.

Likewise, whether the contestants will do well or disintegrate during their performance isn't obvious until we watch them perform live. It's like watching NASCAR: The race is engaging, but a spectacular crash rivets the crowd because it's impossible to predict, and because it has real consequences.

On “American Idol,” there's a reason we're drawn to the absurdity, “American Dreamz” is just absurd for no reason.

is a writer and teacher who publishes , a daily summary of reality TV news.