American Dreamz(Universal Home Entertainment, 10.17.2006)
Every now and then, a brilliant and incisive satire is misunderstood by critics and audiences alike, only to have its true genius discovered by future generations. This is not one of those films. Still, the complete and utter failure of American Dreamz has been a bit distorted and misunderstood. The political commentary in the film is so timid, familiar, and superficial that it's almost impossible to imagine anyone being offended or confuse this with "daring" (to quote Roger Ebert) political satire. The real failure of this film has nothing to do with politics and everything to do with Paul Weitz's inexplicable decision to embrace a broad, dated satirical aesthetic reminiscent of Mel Brooks's most cringe-inducing comedies of the '70s.
The Weitz brothers are an enigmatic pair. When American Pie came out, I was puzzled to hear them cite the influence of films like I Am Cuba in interviews, only to see that their film had more in common with the work of Savage Steve Holland (Better Off Dead). Okay, so they really just read interviews with Paul Thomas Anderson when Boogie Nights came out -- Anderson also routinely cited I Am Cuba, though the influence made sense in his case -- but they clearly wanted to be taken more seriously than their first film suggested. They made a step in the right direction the next year when they appeared as actors in Miguel Arteta and Mike White's terrific DV feature, Chuck & Buck. Of course, any good will was quickly lost when they got back behind the camera for Down to Earth, their embarrassing remake of Warren Beatty and Buck Henry's Heaven Can Wait.
Critics finally warmed up to the Weitzs in 2002 when they brought Nick Hornsby's novel "About a Boy" to the screen. While this film finally demonstrated some visual know-how -- thanks in large part to cinematographer Remi Adefarasin -- this film was crippled by grating sentimentality and it ultimately failed to reach any of the heights of the Weitzs' oft-cited inspiration, The Apartment. It was with great surprise, then, that Paul Weitz's first solo effort (his brother didn't get credit on American Pie, but did co-direct), In Good Company, finally proved that he could make a completely worthwhile film. It wasn't very original or ambitious, but it achieved its schematic objectives impressively, proving that Weitz could handle actors and character-driven comedy with wit and intelligence.
So how did American Dreamz happen? As Weitz himself admits on the commentary for, he saw this as an opportunity to forget all the lessons he'd finally learned on In Good Company and revert back to the low brow tendencies of his earlier films. Desperately trying to justify this pandering stupidity, Weitz insists that he grew up around intellectuals, but is extremely skeptical of them. He wants us to know that, while he may seem dumb -- and most of his movies are dumb -- this is actually a conscious choice. But American Dreamz doesn't feel like the work of a smart person playing dumb. It feels like the real thing.
Weitz's commentary really is quite maddening because a) he thinks this film is good and b) he's constantly analyzing his own performance on the commentary. God forbid the listener make any observation about Weitz that he hasn't first made about himself. But he doesn't analyze his most revealing statements, many of which -- like that remark about intellectuals -- attempt to make strengths out of his limitations.
And this film has many, many limitations: pretty much every performance is a heavy-handed, bizarrely on-the-nose embarrassment (Seth "fake Ben Stiller" Meyers is particularly difficult to stomach), the manipulative score kills jokes left and right, and even cinematographer Robert Elswit -- coming off some of the best work of his career in Syriana and Good Night, and Good Luck. -- seems lost in this poorly planned mess that bears a greater resemblance to his work in Gigli than his collaborations with Paul Thomas Anderson (which Weitz claims were his inspiration for hiring Elswit).
Believe it or not, American Dreamz has a few redeeming qualities -- it hints at an interesting observation about handlers controlling the lives of their rich and powerful bosses -- but pretty much all merit and good intentions are lost beneath several layers of incompetently-executed satire. Seriously, this humor is lethal. It's the kind of humor that not only fails to inspire laughter, it actually causes a kind of anti-laughter, equal parts irritation and revulsion.
American Idol and George W. Bush are satirized on a daily basis, which makes most of the humor related to those topics curiously familiar and ineffective. The slightly less familiar targets -- terrorists and the American military -- yield slightly better results, but I wouldn't dare describe anything in this movie as "funny."
Other than Weitz's commentary (he gets so bored by the halfway point that he invites actor Sam Golzari to join him), the DVD includes some disposable deleted scenes, a featurette on the film's dance choreography, and a laugh-free mock featurette about Mandy Moore's character Sally Kendoo. It's not clear where Weitz intends to go next, but one thing is clear: it can't possibly be worse than American Dreamz. -- Jonathan Doyle