The Roman rulers used to distract the populace from the problems of corruption and decadence with “bread and circuses.” Today’s equivalent might be junk food and television, especially “reality” television. It plays to our fascination with both “real people” and celebrities and especially with the magical moment of transformation — the magical possibility of our own transformation — from one category to the other.
This wild and wildly uneven satire imagines a dim and detached President from Texas, a bald, Machiavellian Vice President who calls the shots, and a television show in which contestants compete to be selected for stardom.
Writer-director Paul Weitz (American Pie, About a Boy) says he got the idea for this movie when he found that more people vote for “American Idol” than vote for President. He took those two things, combined them, cranked it up a notch, and tweaked it a little.
Dennis Quaid plays the distracted President, just re-elected and not able to grasp exactly what the world situation is and how he should respond to it. He just wants to stay in bed and read newsapers. Willem Dafoe is the Vice President, whose relationship with the President appears to be modeled on the relationship of a ventriloquist to his puppet.
“American Dreamz” (“with a z”) is the “American Idol”-equivalent and Hugh Grant is the Simon Cowell-equivalent, supercilious, arrogant, but looking like Hugh Grant and being on television so people let him get away with it. He hates just about everyone and everything, or he would if he had the energy to work up that much emotion. He’s more like bored and cranky.
But he’s clear on what he wants — a show everyone will watch. And so he has to make sure this year’s contestants are the most watchable ever, including Sally (Mandy Moore), a rapaciously ambitious small-town girl, and Omer (Sam Golzari), a show-tune-loving terrorist from a sleeper cell. Sally will do anything to win. Omer finds he may not be willing to do anything for his cause. And the President thinks he can improve his approval ratings by being a guest judge on the show.
The highlight of the film is Moore, a treat as Sally, clearly enjoying herself but clearly in control of the performance, so sincerely insincere that it’s almost appealing. The set-ups are better than the pay-offs, but the film effectively makes its points about celebrities — political and show business, and about American dreams (with an s), especially the foolish but endearing dream that we are all just a wish and a chance away from being a star.
Parents should know that the movie has some mature material, including some strong language and some sexual references and non-explicit situations. The subject matter, while satiric, includes terrorism and suicide. Characters drink alcohol. The movie includes diverse characters but some audiences may find the satiric exaggeration to be offensive stereotyping, or, with regard to the President, disrespectful.
Families who see this movie should talk about the appeal of “American Idol,” and why more people vote for the best singer than vote for in the presidential election. They should also talk about the role of satire as political commentary.
Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy Wag the Dog, Saved! (with Moore), and Primary Colors (all with more mature material). They may also enjoy my interview with writer-director Paul Weitz.