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American idiots 

Presidential and pop parodies fall flat in American Dreamz

Dennis Quaid does an OK George W. Bush in American Dreamz. His U.S. president is named Staton, but Quaid's slack jaw and slow drawl leave no doubt as to his real identity. Quaid falls short of the better Bush impressions, though. Will Ferrell gets the biggest laughs. Timothy Bottoms on Comedy Central's short-lived "That's My Bush!" bears the most striking resemblance. Lesser-known Steve Bridges uncannily captures Dubya's diction and gestures.

Most Bush impersonators, like Quaid or Chris Cooper in Silver City, fall into the trap of treating Bush as a tongue-tied airhead, which is just part of the picture. They invariably overlook the cocksure swagger and blinkered arrogance that provide a cornerstone to the president's political successes and failures. Quaid's short-sightedness proves characteristic of American Dreamz, which aims for such obvious jokes in its attempts to satirize the White House, the Iraq War and "American Idol" that it feels like a spotty, 90-minute sketch.

For instance, Hugh Grant unmistakably portrays Martin Tweed, the host and sole judge of hit TV singing contest "American Dreamz," as a barely fictionalized version of "American Idol's" acid-tongued Simon Cowell. Suffering a malaise of self-loathing, Tweed grudgingly begins a new season of his show by demanding that his staff find great contestants. "And by great, I mean human. And by human, I mean flawed. And by flawed, I mean freaks. Get me freaks."

Writer/director Paul Weitz (American Pie and About a Boy) floats his best idea with the notion that everyone is media-conscious, from no-name celebrity wannabes to the White House chief of staff (Willem Dafoe, made up to be a dead ringer for Dick Cheney). Small-town would-be "Dreamer" Sally Kendoo (Mandy Moore) ruthlessly exploits her shot at fame and dumps her go-nowhere boyfriend, William Williams (Chris Klein). But when William gets wounded in Iraq, Sally patches things up with him to earn the sympathy of TV viewers.

Even the terrorists show spin-savvy. An al-Qaeda-esque organization tries to shoot a recruitment film, but Omer (Sam Golzari), a showtune-loving stumble-bum, keeps ruining the shots. His bosses fob Omer off on California cousins, but when he gets uwittingly tapped for "American Dreamz," the terrorists suggest he detonate a suicide bomb when President Staton appears as a guest judge.

Once the phone-in contest starts, Sally and Omer both prove popular, although the latter plays like a misguided lounge act with his own catchphrase, "You've been Omerized!" (He's like an Arabic equivalent to William Hung.) How the pair reacts to the glitz and pressure of weeks of TV fame seems ripe for comedic exploration. Instead, the film skims over their participation in a brief montage that emphasizes failed contenders who resemble "Idol" also-rans Bo Bice and Clay Aiken. Movie audiences who don't already know "Idol" will be mystified by the inside jokes and even the show's rules.

Once American Dreamz sets its characters on an elaborate collision course, it doesn't know what to do with them along the way. Marcia Gay Harden's first lady looks uncannily like Laura Bush but remains peripheral to the plot. Martin shows an inexplicable attraction to Sally that feels underwritten. The telescoped pacing only proves amusing with William, who enlists in the Army, gets shot in Iraq and returns stateside in what seems like days.

American Dreamz builds to a clever wrap-up and features plenty of quotable jokes, like the way Stephen Trask's "American Dreamz" theme song lyrics refer to "Dreamz ... with a 'Z'!" Weitz pokes fun at the novelty of a president actually reading newspapers -- a clear sign that he's suffering a nervous breakdown. But the film avoids the chance to put teeth in its satire. Omer's mother died because of a U.S. bomb, but he delights in Broadway standards like "Luck Be a Lady." Omer's love-hate relationship with American culture should be at the heart of the film instead of relegated to the background. American Dreamz emphasizes fairly predictable pop parodies, and you can find better Dubyas elsewhere.

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