American Dreamz is like a middling Saturday Night Live skit that never ends. In writer/director Paul Weitz's conception, the president is a slow-witted dolt being puppeteered by his staff, the participants on an American Idol-type mega-hit are a combination of talentless sweeties and fame-hungry monsters, and the American public happily buys every piece of pop-fueled mediocrity placed before it, especially when it's swathed in the sentimental, jingoistic guise of "patriotism." Wherever did Weisz come up with such fresh objects of ridicule?
Even if you believe, as Weisz does, that the subjects American Dreamz lampoons are deserving of yuks, the film is almost embarrassingly toothless. Weisz doesn't find a single original thing to say about fame or American gullibility, and his major characters are obvious, one-note caricatures; once you've experienced 30 seconds of Hugh Grant's Simon Cowell clone, Mandy Moore's manipulative chanteuse, Marcia Gay Harden's drawling First Lady (who calls the prez "poopie"), and Willem Dafoe's smarmy chief of staff, you've gleaned absolutely everything Weisz has to say about them. (Dennis Quaid, as the president, is more cartoonishly mannered than Phil Hartman and Dana Carvey, in their SNL days, ever were.) For the record, caricatures aren't, in and of themselves, bad things in a comedy. Unfunny caricatures are, and American Dreamz is rife with them.
Yet Weisz, here, has a deeper problem than the film's lack of bite and laughs. He wants the movie to be a commentary on current American culture, yet doesn't do anything to suggest that American Dreamz is taking place in any kind of real world. The plotting is so senseless as to be incoherent. As part of a PR blitz, the president is recruited to be a celebrity judge on the film's Idol doppelganger, yet the logistics of this aren't explored in the slightest - wouldn't this decision create some kind of media blitz? Nothing makes sense in this film. How does Chris Klein morph from gee-whiz military recruit to savvy, show-biz smoothie? Did this happen off screen? Why does Sam Golarzi's suicide bomber, Omer, initially decide to go through with his mission when he's clearly had a change of heart?
And above all, what is Weisz trying to say to us here? Should we laugh at the president for being so stupid, or pity him? Should we be angry that Idol is a popularity contest, or accept it as such? Should we detest the contestants' machinations in getting to the top, or applaud their gumption? Weisz doesn't appear to have figured out any of his characters' motivations, aside from those of Omer's sweetly flamboyant cousin, Igbal (the deliriously daffy Tony Yalda), who wants only for the world to applaud his fey show-biz stylings. (Perhaps not coincidentally, Igbal is the only entertaining figure in the film.) American Dreamz is the worst, laziest type of Hollywood comedy, one that keeps insisting on how funny it is without giving you the vaguest clue why.
The plot of Disney's computer-animated The Wild is completely derivative - it's Madagascar meets Finding Nemo, with a dash of The Lion King - and it's nowhere near as amusing as it should be; the movie, beautifully designed though it is, is like a sincere Madagascar, and what's the point of that? Yet The Wild does feature some clever gags involving the food chain and attraction between animals of different species - if you ever wanted to watch a squirrel romance a giraffe, this is your movie - and, best of all, it has Eddie Izzard.
A number of talents do admirable vocal work in The Wild, among them Kiefer Sutherland, Janeane Garofalo, Patrick Warburton, and William Shatner, whose villainous wildebeest scores a big laugh with his introduction, "I'm Kazar. Leader, philosopher ... choreographer." But Izzard, playing a quarrelsome koala, is priceless. (He's also the focus of the film's best subplot, an inspired take on The Gods Must Be Crazy.) Like Ellen DeGeneres in Nemo or Kevin Spacey in A Bug's Life, Izzard doesn't just read his lines but puts his entire spirit into his work here; everything people love (or should love) about Izzard's dementedly original, stream-of-consciousness mumblings is on display, in the form of a cuddly bear who is annoyed up to here with being a cuddly bear. It's the sort of brilliantly synergistic voice-over work that should be earning Izzard legions of fans, and it would if The Wild itself didn't feel like such old news.
SCARY MOVIE 4
No one goes to see a Scary Movie for the wit, so the wit revealed in Scary Movie 4 is all the more refreshing for being so unexpected. Certainly, David Zucker's horror spoof has its share of clunky scenes and jokes - more than its share, actually. The Brokeback Mountain gags would have felt stale even if they were more timely, and as for the extended parody of Million Dollar Baby, I can't quite figure out what Zucker and his writing team were aiming for; the sequence is more confusing than anything. (If Zucker and company really wanted to be subversive, they should have hired Morgan Freeman to narrate Scary Movie 4.) And, as in Scary Movie 3, the casting of Leslie Nielsen as the president is a better joke in theory than in execution, as are the cameos by Charlie Sheen, Cloris Leachman, Shaquille O'Neal, and Dr. Phil, who fails at the seemingly simple task of playing Dr. Phil.
There are many things wrong with Scary Movie 4, but it gets so many things right that it feels silly to complain about this hit-or-miss farce; when the movie hits, it hits big. (SM4 is easily the best installment in its franchise thus far.) Anna Faris, who may be incapable of giving a less-than-delightful performance, and Craig Bierko, doing a savage Tom Cruise parody, are spectacular throughout, but Scary Movie 4 scores because its objects of ridicule are, more often than not, movies completely deserving of ridicule. M. Night Shymalan's intentionally stoic, unintentionally laughable dialogue in The Village is mocked without mercy, and the logistics of War of the Worlds' plotting - which constitutes the majority of the spoof - are given the harshest attention; running from the aliens' lasers, with their talent for incinerating humans but not their clothing, a woman says to a fleeing gal next to her, "I like your outfit!", pushes her under a laser beam, and absconds with the lady's apparel. (The movie also pays homage to War of the Worlds' worst scene - weepy Cruise singing "Little Deuce Coupe" to Dakota Fanning - by having Bierko sing his child to sleep with a hysterically inappropriate rap song.) And it's not just deserving movies that are satirized in Scary Movie 4 - when the president is first informed of the aliens' attack, the commander-in-chief is annoyed, as he's enjoying his visit to a kindergarten class, and wants to see how the story about the pet goat ends. Who would have thought Scary Movie 4 would be more insightful - and far funnier - than American Dreamz?