Congratulations Omer. You stole my dream.
— Iqbal (Tony Yalda)
American Dreamz is all about ambition and celebrity culture. Its critique, broad, unoriginal, and only sometimes funny, involves at tv and commercial stardom, political stardom, and terrorism (which is a kind of stardom if you understand, as this film does, the desire to achieve paradise as a bid for media attention as much as a means to serve Allah). With so many targets, American Dreamz feels busy and energetic, but it’s actually rather lazy.
The most obvious venue for ambition and stardom here is the tv competition called American Dreamz, which mimics American Idol (not much stretching needed here to make fun of the show, just a few obvious references to former contestants like Fantasia and Clay Aiken, and by the time it’s done, you wonder why anyone bothered). Desperately seeking celebrity, everyone involved with the tv show is plainly amped to find fame or fortune, but they also seem in some measure of pain, from host Martin Tweed (Hugh Grant) to producer Ittles (John Cho) to contestants Sally Kendoo (Mandy Moore) and Sholem Glickstein (Adam Busch) and unctuous agent Chet Krogel (Seth Meyers).
At the same time, the film offers up hectic images of consumers barreled over by the marketing juggernaut, thrilled to scream in the studio audience, glued to their sets back home, and eager to buy up every possible item as soon as it becomes available, ensuring that the revenue machinery will persist. Starting off as a fan and so, fully understanding the game, Sally is cupie-cute and egged on by her go-getting, tasteless mom Martha (Jennifer Coolidge, who just needs to play another part, please). An initial part of Sally’s plan involves dropping her pleasant but moronic boyfriend William Williams (Chris Klein). When he insists that she makes him feel like “being a better person,” she sets him straight: “I’m not a better person; I’m me.” It’s not long before the American Dreamz team comes calling, complete with instructions to repeat her screechy-jumping-up-and-downy discovery that she’s been chosen, when the camera man screws up the shoot. And so, she does it again, as piercing and annoying as before.
The film’s second ambition trajectory has to do with the American Administration, here fronted by dumb-as-a-bag-of-hammers President Staton (Dennis Quaid). Near the start of the film, he suffers a post-reelection meltdown, taking to his bed and refusing to come out to face cameras, congressmen, or visiting dignitaries. While Station appears a nice fellow, overprotected by his ambitious wife Linda (Marcia Gay Harden) and plainly manipulated by his Chief of Staff Sutter (Willem Dafoe, playing in between Karl Rove and Dick Cheney), he’s also the ostensible leader of the free world. And so, when he discovers to his horror that Iran and North Korea are not in fact Dr. Octopus and Magneto, he’s a little hard to picture as a victim.
The group who actually does see itself as victims is the third track for ambition, the terrorists. Generic and bearded, they want revenge for all the wrong done to their people over hundreds of years, and by the way, seek paradise and a certain number of virgins upon completion of their earthly mission. That’s not to say bodily pleasures are beyond imagining: head terrorist Agha Babur (Bernard White) makes clear early on that he likes his work, and that his terrorist trainees can assume they will provide him some amusement should they not fulfill their duties: “Folks don’t call me ‘The Torturer,'” he warns, “because I don’t like to torture people.” He makes this pledge while taking time out in a Beverly Hills jacuzzi.
These three plotlines converge when, as Staton recovers from his breakdown, Sutter decides that the most effective way to get him back in the public eye looking healthy and strong is to have him appear as a guest judge on American Dreamz. It’s hard to fault this reasoning, as the show commands a tremendous audience, but it’s also indicative of the movie’s lack of precision and substance.
The announcement of this event inspires the terrorists to plan an ambitious suicide bombing against the president, on the show — a spectacular intersection of tv, violence, and political statement. Their sleeper cell agent is Omer (Sam Golzari), having been banished from Afghanistan when he was discovered in terrorist training camp dancing to “One” from A Chorus Line. At that point he was packed off to the U.S. to live with relatives in Beverly Hills, including his American Dreamz-aspiring, completely charismatic cousin, Iqbal (Tony Yalda, who essentially steals every scene he’s in). (It’s worth mentioning that Shoreh Aghdashloo appears for scant minutes as Iqbal’s beamingly materialistic mother, and despite the silliness of her role, dazzles.)
When Iqbal’s own efforts to get on the show fail, he agrees to coach Omer (during one choreography session, he sighs at Omer’s nervousness: “It’s just a bass track rehearsal. You move like a reanimated corpse in a zombie movie”). But really, Omer needn’t worry, for Martin has already decided: “I want an Arab,” he says, to fill out his one-from-every-food-group array of finalists.
Omer goes on to generate remarkable sympathy and hardcore fans (inspiring “Omermania”), which in turn makes Sally extra-competitive. She’s granted a bit of PR gold when William goes off to fight in Iraq to prove himself worthy of her, only to have his arm grazed by a bullet on his first day. When William arrives rather pathetically on Sally’s doorstep, Chet pounces. To enhance her competitive standing, she must be affianced to this handsome war veteran. “Do you think it’s bad of me to accept a proposal from a man I don’t love to manipulate voters?” she asks Martin, who opines, “Bad is such a nebulous word.”
Indeed, Sally finds any number of ways to bad, as do her fellow contestants, as do Martin and President Staton. They’re mediocre and deceptive, contemptuous and short-sighted. But they are ambitious. It’s easy to make these charges. Here’s the rub: does it matter that consumers know all about the badness and the cynical ambition, but watch anyway?