"She's been wanting to do this since she was six months old," Martha Kendoo (Jennifer Coolidge) tells the camera for American Dreamz, an American Idol-esque TV show. Martha's talking about her daughter, Amercian Dreamz contestant and Britney Spears wannabe Sally Kendoo (played by Britney Spears wannabe Mandy Moore), who sings her corn-fed heart out in an attempt to be America's next star.
American Dreamz—the film, which is largely about the fictitious show—focuses a great deal on Sally, but it also has dozens of other characters, including TV host Martin Tweed (Hugh Grant), contestant/possible terrorist Omer (Sam Golzari), and Sally's "war hero" boyfriend, William Williams (Chris Klein), who gets grazed in the arm on his first day in Iraq and spends the rest of the film parading around in his Army dress uniform. Other notable characters consist of various Dreamz contestants, a bunch of goofy terrorists, a fabulously clichéd gay teen (Tony Yalda), and Vice President Sutter (Willem Dafoe) and President Staton (Dennis Quaid). I'm pretty sure I'm forgetting one or two characters. Maybe ten. Doesn't matter.
For as many characters as Dreamz has, it wants to say even more: Writer/director Paul Weitz goes after everything from America's vapid obsession with TV to the Middle East. Just as with Martha Kendoo's characterization of her daughter, Weitz has long been yearning to do something that's remained just beyond his reach—in this case, make a good movie. Ever since American Pie, I've wanted to like Weitz's work—he just seems so good-hearted, like he genuinely wants to make good films. And he's tried: Everybody thought American Pie was going to be a dumb teen sex comedy, and while it certainly inspired no shortage of such films (including its own sequels), the first Pie had a surprisingly tender core. With About a Boy, Weitz got solid reviews and, according to most, nailed an earnest Nick Hornby adaptation, while with 2004's In Good Company, he wrangled great performances out of Quaid and Topher Grace in a film that attempted to be both a heartwarming drama and a satire of corporate culture.
But In Good Company was too muddled to hit Weitz's satirical target, and the fact that American Dreamz has roughly 50,000 similar targets makes this film fare even more poorly. There is great stuff in here, somewhere: Quaid's President Staton is a dead-ringer for Bush; lucky and dumb, he's fed lines via a speaker that Dafoe's Cheney-esque VP has stuck in his ear. In one of the film's cleverer subplots, Dreamz contestant Omer is ordered to wear an explosive belt and martyr himself on TV to help out his terrorist buddies. And throughout, Weitz highlights some genuinely biting, relevant moments. Indeed, Dreamz has a few solid characters, some good laughs, and—damningly—a fruitless wish that it was anything but the mess that it is.
To call Dreamz half-assed might be accurate, but that's a bit too easy—Weitz is clearly trying hard, even if it's impossible to figure out what he's trying hard at. With its comedy—sometimes easy, sometimes smart, sometimes clichéd (the aforementioned gay character is so insipid that he's embarrassing to watch)—Dreamz tries to hit everything and anything. But its occasional hits aren't enough. As the film progresses, its humor grows blunter and broader, even dipping into the dreaded realm of slapstick—and by the end credits, the whole thing's so scattershot that one can't help but wonder what the point of any of it is. Or, for that matter, if Weitz even has one.