Friday, 7 November 2008

The Cheap-Arse Flim Review #5- "AMERICAN DREAMZ."








PRICE: £1.00

First things first, I'd like to congratulate my friends Darren & Claire on the birth of their daughter, Sophie. Congrats you two, you created a human being. The only thing of any significance I've ever contributed to this world is carbon dioxide. Now, with that said...

... no, I can't believe I'm reviewing this movie, either. It's distrubted by a proper studio (Universal), written and directed by someone who's made movies you've probably heard of and maybe even like (Paul Weitz, who co-directed "American Pie," and "About A Boy," with his brother Chris, and gave the world "In Good Company,"
and "The Golden Compass" solo), stars people you'll probably know (Hugh Grant, Dennis Quaid, Willam Defoe and Mandy Moore being the biggest, if not always the best, of the bunch), and was released in 2006. Two years ago! and yet, here we are. One pound.

I'm also a little bit surprised at myself that I'd not seen this until now. I mean, I'm a big fan of almost all the films Weitz has been involved in writing and/or directing. I even thought "Golden Compass," was alright. And the one movie he's been involved with as either a writer or director that I haven't liked, that being "Down To Earth," had nothing to do with anything he and his brother did, and everything to do with Chris Rock's frustrating and continued inability to translate whatever makes him funny and likeable during
his stand-up onto the big screen (NOTE: Shortly after writing this paragraph, I discovered that he and his brother were two of the four people involved in the screenplay for "Nutty Professor 2: The Klumps." I've decided to pretend this didn't happen and just move on with my life).

To be honest, the second I heard what the subject matter was, I pretty much lost all interest. For those that don't know, this movie sets out to be a scathing attack on reality television talent shows, those that make them, those that take part in them, and those that judge on them. Now, when I say I've no interest in seeing this, don't take that to mean I'm a fan of those sorts of shows, because I'm not. I just feels like I've been hearing the same jokes and
complaints, with little-to-no variation, for years now. And that's because I have. I mean, they must have been running out of material to mine from this genre back in the seventies with the likes of "The Gong Show," and nobody seems to have found anything new to say about it over the course of the last 30-something years. Yes, most of the contestants really aren't that talented. Yes, most of the people judging the contestants are either awful or have such low self-esteem they really have no right judging anyone. Yes, the producers of the shows are exploiting people and have already decided who should win. And yes, there's always one contestant who is so driven to win that he/she/it's practically psychotic. I get all that. It stopped being funny and actually became a little bit sad quite some time ago.

Grant is playing Simon Cowell. I don't care what his character's name really is, he's playing Simon Cowell. I have a funny relationship with Hugh Grant. On the one hand, every time he does an interview or a television appearence, such as the one he did on "Top Gear" last year, I find him to be a very charming and engaging man. I also like how he's kind of a throwback to the old fashioned movie stars that this country used to be famous for, the kind that doesn't really act so much as they just bring little bits of themselves to every role. But on the other, he always moans about how he doesn't really like acting and finds it a childish pursuit, and I can't stop myself from thinking that if he hates it so much, why doesn't he
just stop? I mean, there's probably hundreds of British actors in his age bracket working in bars and restaurants in LA that would sell the souls of their first borns in order to be in the position he's in.

Anyway, the movie starts with Simon reading a fax with the ratings for the last season of "American Dreamz," on it, which says they're excellent, which he strangely doesn't seem too happy about. His girlfriend than tells him she's leaving him, which he says he's happy about, because in his own words, "You make me want to be a better person. And I'm not a better person. I'm me." So straight off the bat, we find that Grant's character is going to occupy the safe comfort zone he's been in since "Bridget Jones' Diary," that of the
total git. Only this time there's a little bit of vulnerablity and self-loathing mixed in, ticking two of the boxes I previously mentioned with one character, which I have to admit is good economy. I think they think this makes him complex, but in truth, it makes him a bit of a confusing character. There are scenes where he's telling his production crew to "bring me freaks," and that when looking for contestants he wants, "Someone to love, someone to pity, someone to laugh at, someone to masturbate over." But then there will be other scenes when he's practically banging his head against a wall begging for there not to be another season, and in conversation with Mandy Moore's character reveals that his Mother told him he had no talent and that nobody would ever love him. This implies that he realises he has to be horrible in order to maintain his fame, to continue to be able to give his mother the finger (blimey, what a horrific mental image that is...), but because he has such low and fragile self-worth, being the most hated man in the world absolutely destroys him, which would be an interesting contradiction, were it not for the fact that it's never really addressed in any detail. Most of the time he's just a scummy human being.

The next character we meet is Dennis Quaid's. He's playing George W. Bush. I don't care what his character's name really is, he's playing George W. Bush. Quaid's another actor I've had a few problems with recently. When he was younger, he was powerhouse of a movie star, with an irrsistable grin and wild, almost dangerous charisma. But if
his recent roles were anything to go by, that all seemed to have gone away. He just seems to be happy sleepwalking through movies with an angry scowl on his face. Even in "In Good Company," a movie I really like and think houses one of his better recent performances, I struggled to connect with his character, and I felt he struggled to connect with the other characters on-screen. When that movie ended, I didn't believe for a second that he had any kind of affection for Topher Grace's character, because he'd done nothing to convince me that he did. I mean, seriously Dennis, what happened? Was it when Meg Ryan left you that the joy just disappeared from your life? If you asked me, you dodged a bullet on that one. Have you seen her lately? She may as well be called Robocop, because at this point there's probably about as much original organic material left on her as there is on Murphy.

For what it's worth, this turns out to be one of his better performances. At first he plays Dubya like you'd expect, as an ignorant goof with a bit of a Massiah complex and very little understanding of what's going on in the world. However, as the movie goes on, it's revealed that during his last campaign, he had something of a breakdown, and has started to realise that he's being used as a puppet by those around him, especially his Chief Of Staff (played by Willem Defoe, who with his shaved head looks like John Malkovich's even uglier brother), who is so disturbed by his superior's desire to actually read a newspaper that he convinces him to wear an earpiece and parrot the whatever he feeds to him
word-for-word in an attempt to keep him on message.

We then meet the two main contestants of the show, that being Omar, played by Sam Golzari, and Sally Kendoo (Geddit? "Kendoo?" "Can Do?" To imply that she's, y'know, driven? Anyone? Anyone?), who's played by Mandy Moore.

We first meet Omar when he's being filmed training for a terrorist propaganda video on the Afgan-Pakistan border. He is, to put it bluntly, not prime terroist material. He gets in people's way on the monkey bars, is practically used as a trampoline to get over walls, and as for his ability to fire a gun, well forget it. Eventually he's dismissed from filming, and later that night soothes his soul
by listening old fifties showtunes. Wait, WAT? It's at least explained that he developed a love for this sort of music from his mother, who managed to amass a collection of 50 records before she was blown up by an Amerian bomb. He's sent away to live with his Aunt and Uncle in America and told to wait to be contacted by his Sleeper Cell, which we find out is never planned to happen, on account of him obviously being rubbish at killing things. Once there, he meets his two Americanised cousins, Shazzy and Igbal. Igbal is, and there's no delicate way of putting this, super gay, spending most of his free time dancing and singing in front of a mirror on a self-made stage, complete with it's own glitter ball. Talking logic in a movie like this is a bit redundant, because its obviously operating in its own little world in order to make its point, but it struck me as odd that Omar, who is a member of an obviously extreme-religious terrorist organisation, never has an issue with his cousin's obvious sexuality. Maybe that's done to hammer home just how much he's not cut out for this line of work. Anyway, Omar decides to stay in when his cousins go to the mall in order to use said stage to indulge is desire to perform something from "Guys & Dolls," ony to have an "American Dreamz" camera crew walk in on him, expecting to find Igbal, but decide to go with him instead. This catches the eye of his contacts in America, who decide to use him as a suicide bomber in order to assassinate The President, who's appearing at the final to act as a guest judge. Still following this at the back? Excellent.

Mandy in many ways gets the most juicy character to play in Sally, that of the totally ambition-motivated young woman who dumps her boyfriend, the brilliantly named William Willams (played by Chris Klein, who gives his best performance since "Election") the second she gets so much of a wiff of fame, only to get back together with him when he comes back from Iraq a decorated war hero because it makes for a good story to tell on TV. She's been preparing for this moment her whole life, to the point that she doesn't bat an eyelid when the producers of the show ask her to reenact her excitement at being told she's going to be on the show. It's this drive (Kendoo!!!) that brings her to the attenion of Cowell, who sees in
her the same ruthlessness and desire to be famous at all costs that he has, and the two spark up a strange friendship/non-romance. In a way, they can be themselves with each other, as shallow and ruthlessly honest as they want, and neither of them judges the other, like when Cowell makes a lame joke, then tries to explain it to Sally when she doesn't laugh, only for her to tell him that she knew it was a joke, but didn't find it funny, and not laughing at it would in a strange way be kissing his arse more than if she had laughed like everybody else would have.

So the movie goes on, we see snatches of the other acts and Cowell's reactions to them, the highlight of which being when he tells one poor young girl, "I've felt like this before, and it was right before I tried to kill myself." I would give anything to hear the real Simon Cowell say that. We don't actually see as much of the other acts as I was hoping. To be honest this section feels really rushed through, like nobody involved had any interest in showing how the show works. Or maybe they just assumed we all know how shows like this work, and devoting too much time to it would be pointless. Either way, it left me a bit cold.

We eventually reach the final, where the two finalists are, you guessed it, Omar and Sally. Simon reveals to Sally that he's rigged the thing for her the best he can, as he's helped Omar along into the final with his positive comments because "novelty acts never win the whole thing," and they have another ace in the hole, with Sally's boyfriend poised to propose to her on live television. They then have an exchange that's almost worth sitting through the entire movie for...

"Sometimes I look at you and see my own reflection, and it's revolting. And attractive."

"Martin, I'm not physically attracted to other people, but if you want me, I'm yours."

I might try both of those out on a girl next time I'm down the pub, see where it gets me.

Of course they have sex, which is seen by William through the keyhole of the door, who is so distraught he later apears on stage wearing the bomb Omar decided not to, blowing both himself and Cowell up. It's revealed six months later that this lead to him being voted the winner of that season's American Dreamz, along with
Omar going on tour performing showtunes, and Sally achieving her dream of fame by becoming the new host of the show.

I want to say there were a few I liked about this movie. For a start, it looks great. In some of my past reviews I had to stop myself over-praising the production values, because I realised I was starting to grade things on a curve. This though, this is the real deal. The lighting, the set design, the camera work, everything just screams quality and money. After a month of doing this, watching this movie is like getting naked into a hot tub full of warm melted chocolate. There were also some character moments that caught me off-guard, most of them coming from Quaid's portrayal of Dubya. Going into this, I was expecting
him to be a totally unlikable idiot, but the movie surprises me by, in many ways, making him the most endearing character of the piece, portraying a man coming to the slow realisation that everyone around him is using him. There are two great scenes in particular; one with him talking to his wife (played by the always wonderful Marcia Gay Harden, who really has nothing to do), telling her that he thinks the only reason he got into politics was because his mother wanted him to in order to show his father that any idiot could do it; the other between him and his Chief Of Staff, shortly after he's convinced him to wear the earpiece, where he's caually told the only reason he just met Carmen Elektra is because the Chief loves her but never had the courage to talk to her, so he used the President to talk to her for him. After being told this, Dubya's eyes fill up with tears, and he starts to cry. And you genuinely feel for him, because here's a man who's just suddenly realised that all he is is a hollow shell for other people to live through. When he finally accidenly dislodges the earpiece and starts speaking for himself again, it really is a great feel-good moment.

But for all the things I liked, there was more I didn't. For a start, this movie is sinfully wasteful with it's talent. Other than the aforementioned Harden, Jennifer Coolidge, John Cho and Judy Greer have to make do with basically nothing part. You had Judy Greer, one of the most beautiful and talented comedic actresses of her generation, playing a part that I could have played just as well. That's just shameful.
There's also a pretty blase attitude towards the issues in the Middle East that's more than a little bit dubious. But the thing that really bothers me about this film is it's tone. It's a spiteful, mean-spirited movie. And that's fine, some of my favourite movies are both of those things. But I've spoken before about filmmakers making movies they don't really know how to, and it's obvious that Paul Weitz doesn't know how to make this kind of movie. If you look back at all his previous films, whether he wrote them or not, they're all very bright-eyed and optimistic. Even "About A Boy," which flirts with cynisism, ends on a euphoric, uplifting note. And that also shows in the scenes I mentioned in the previous paragraph. They were very obviously written by a man who just downright cares about people, and you can almost hear him breathing a sigh of relief before has to go back to pretending he doesn't. I'm all for people adding more strings to their banjo, but sometimes people are better off sticking to what they know. Mr. Weitz, you're clearly a big-hearted man. Stick to making big-hearted, if occasionally foul-mouthed, movies.

I can't believe I'm about to do this, but...



If there were any proof that I'm being totally fair with these reviews, it's this one. This is just not a movie I would ever want to own, so in the bin it goes.

Until next time, I'm The Cheap-Arse Film Critic, and I'm articulate.

(PS- Winston, if you're reading this, please not that this review doesn't have one curse word in it, unless we're going to get picky about the use of the word "git." So I can do it, I just choose not to.)


Anonymous said...

Techinically speaking 'Git' is not an expletive, however in your context, "that of the total git," it is.

As for the film, which I admit I have never seen, I feel that you are being a little unfair. So its not you cup of tea, but it the film good? Is it the s-club seven of you little project? They were good at what they did even if I do not like it Teenie pop. Or is it just piffle?

Plus I like Hugh Grant.

The Cheap-Arse Film Critic said...

I KNEW you'd have a problem with the word "git." I go by one rule, and that's if I can say it in front of my Mum without feeling like I'm eight and I've done something wrong all over again, then it's not an expletive.

And I've been trying to think of te best way I can anweryour other complain, and the fact is, all I can say is I don't think it's a good movie, and my opinion is the only one I can really give. It's a confused cartoon that seems to think it's making big points about the nature of fame and obsession when really, it's not. There are better examples of what this movie is out there. I mean, that Peter Kay thing that was on a few weeks ago was better than this. I had the same basic complaints about it, but being objective, it was the superior piece.

Chase said...

thanks for reminding me this awful movie exists...
your review was spot on.
I would have "Binned" the copy I watched if ONDemand made it possible to do so.