Ignore the terrible ‘trendy’ title, because it is all part of the surprisingly intelligent yet still highly amusing and often wonderfully silly satire of this movie. Combining two of the most popular obsessions of the last few years, reality television and terrorism, may not seem like the most obvious cinematic draw, as by now we’re all becoming thoroughly sick of both.
Yet writer/director Paul Weitz has somehow managed to produce a great, accessible movie out of this mix that combines all the best elements of his best-known films American Pie, About a Boy and In Good Company while adding an extra layer of jokey political bite.
The basic premise could so easily have led to a tedious attempt to be topical, as an American President tries to regain his lost popularity by becoming a guest judge on a Popstars clone TV show, only for one of the contestants to be recruited as an assassin by a terrorist cell.
Thanks in part to Weitz’s knowing script, but mostly to hilariously superb performances from Hugh Grant as the Simon Cowell-like presenter, Dennis Quaid as the Bush-style President, Willem Dafoe as the Dick Cheney-esque Vice President and – most surprisingly – pop princess Mandy Moore as the perfect exaggeration of a fame-hungry contestant, American Dreamz secures a strong claim to be one of the most entertaining satires of recent years.
In lesser hands this could easily have turned into yet another of those boringly simplistic attempts to lampoon the Bush presidency – the typical “ha, look at Bush, he’s stupid!” that has characterised so many unthinking attacks on the White House over the last six years. Instead, Weitz and Quaid turn this into not just a parody of Bush, but a parody of the parodies that have become so familiar. With Dafoe’s excellent Vice President as a wonderful exaggeration of Cheney to support the subversion of the standard satirical approach, it is a comfortably recognisable yet subtly different take on the current state of American politics than we have become used to.
The only problem in describing this film is that it combines the intelligent with the silly in such equal measures that it is easy to over-emphasise one aspect. This is by no means the kind of dry humour that characterises most political satire but instead, even without the satirical elements, still manages to work as a simple comedy.
Hugh Grant is as charming and amusing as ever, again subverting his familiar screen persona as he did in About a Boy and the Bridget Jones films, but in a subtly different way. Mandy Moore too is a revelation, showing a far greater level of self-awareness than you would normally expect from her type of pop star – and not in the usual self-conscious “Look, I can laugh at myself! Buy my records!” kind of way that always seems to be the case in the likes of Spice Girls: The Movie.
As such, fans of Weitz’s more simple comedies like American Pie will have a great time just with the more obvious jokes, yet below the surface lies a deceptively deep vein of darkly aware critique not just of modern American politics and the war on terror, but society as a whole. Which was actually, though usually missed, also the case with American Pie. This won’t be as successful as that earlier film, but it deserves to be.