Judging from his unexpectedly flattering performance as a Dubya doppelgänger in American Dreamz, Dennis Quaid can expect a Christmas card from the White House this year, if not a Pepperidge Farm gift bag and possibly even his own affectionate nickname from the President. (Denny Boy? Handsome Guy?) American Dreamz is billed as a satire, but it's the curious kind of satire that makes its ostensible target seem deeper and more impressive than he actually is. Quaid's President is a kindhearted though dim-witted man-child far more prone to humility, introspection, and anguished soul-searching than his real-life counterpart seems. Writer-director Paul Weitz even suggests that if he could only free himself from the meddling influence of sinister Iagos like Willem Dafoe (playing a thinly fictionalized version of Karl Rove), he'd be an even more engaged, compassionate leader.
From scheming pop stars to bumbling Presidents to warmhearted aspiring terrorists, everyone gets off easy in American Dreamz. Weitz's featherweight fantasia on national themes casts Quaid as a depressed President who gets booked on an American Idol-like singing contest in an attempt to improve his image and counter rumors of a nervous breakdown. Mandy Moore co-stars as a Britney Spears/Kelly Clarkson amalgam whose down-home persona masks an abundance of guile and ruthless ambition. Newcomer Sam Golzari plays Moore's principal competition, a loveable would-be terrorist trying to reconcile his fierce hatred of America with his earnest love of American show tunes.
Weitz has a winning way with a one-liner, and he's recruited a stellar cast that gets the most out of his material. But American Dreamz is diverting without being particularly compelling, and amusing without being terribly funny. As with his last movie, In Good Company, Weitz seems stuck in a strange limbo between scathing satire and character-based comedy. Characters are developed with more layers than expected, like Hugh Grant's vaguely self-loathing judge/host/all-around smoothie, but not with enough depth that they transcend caricature altogether. Weitz seems to want to deliver parody with a happy face, but his film's soft heart is incompatible with the deadpan sting of penetrating satire. Even the "dark" final plot twist feels glib, little more than a dim echo of Taxi Driver's ironic coda. Great satires draw blood. American Dreamz barely nicks the surface.