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Do you think American Idol is ridiculous? How about our president? American Dreamz is hoping that, in its own words, both make you “want to projectile-vomit.” Well, maybe you don’t have to feel that strongly about the TV show. After all, even if you believe AI is the epitome of the cookie-cutter mediocrity our screwed-up culture seems to embrace, you still watch it, right? If you didn’t, you wouldn’t get any of Weitz’s jokes.
Writer-director Paul Weitz, who brought us 2002’s About a Boy and 2004’s In Good Company, does a fine job drawing up Martin Tweed (Hugh Grant), a transparently Simon Cowell–ish television personality who lords it over a familiar-looking show called American Dreamz. After heartfelt performances, Tweed says things to Dreamz contestants—many of whom mimic former Idol players—such as “Cindy, I’ve felt this way before. And it was just before I wanted to kill myself.” Weitz goes out of his way to demonstrate that the judge is pretty much the same—straightforward, occasionally mean, unapologetic about his what-are-these-human-emotions attitude—when the cameras are off. When a girlfriend dumps Tweed at the beginning of the movie, he tells her, momentarily all Ryan Seacrest–like, that she’s “amazing.” Then, in self-aware Cowell mode, he says, “You make me feel like being a better person. And I’m not a better person.”
Grant, who is so much more fun as a self-absorbed font of sarcasm than a gooey romantic lead, gets the bulk of the screen time—and therefore gets the bulk of the humor. He’s, as always, a charming comedian, though he’s matched by Dennis Quaid, who delivers a subtle W, er, President Stanton. With an eerily Laura-cloned first lady (Marcia Gay Harden) at his side, Stanton, who’s been avoiding public appearances for a couple of weeks, makes a decision one day to read some newspapers while he’s eating breakfast. (When his chief of staff, the Cheney-disguised Willem Dafoe, comes into the room, he asks, “What’s with the papers? New puppy?”) The prez takes a lot of hits, from becoming lost when a speech-feeding device pops out of his ear to talking to his wife about her suggestion of “happy pills,” a discussion that leads to an explanation of what a placebo is. “Sometimes I think I’m a placebo!” Quaid’s commander-in-chief declares.
Seth Meyers also gets laughs as Chet, a ruthless agent—as if there were any other kind in Hollywood—out to make a star of Ohio Dreamz-er Sally Kendoo (Mandy Moore). Reality-TV cynics will just get affirmation here: The filming of Sally’s giddily receiving notice that she’s been selected for the show gets two takes because the first wasn’t good enough. And Chet manipulates the broken relationship between Sally and William Williams (Chris Klein)—dumped, he joins the Army and is immediately sent to Iraq—to maximum audience-wooing effect. There’s more lowest-common-denominator-baiting, too: A news report captures Sally at her waitressing job surrounded by, as the caption notes, “unemployed bar patrons.” And her first number is, naturally, “Mom, Don’t Drink Me to Bed Tonight.”
Weitz works terrorism into the plot, too, but despite the currency of its topics, American Dreamz never feels like true satire. It doesn’t make you think, and it won’t make you feel any smarter than watching American Idol does. Like a lot of reality TV, AI at some level wants you to feel superior to the people on it—to believe that you’d at least be a better dresser or social engineer, if not a better singer or judge of talent. Weitz’s critique is built into the show itself, which means American Dreamz needs to do some diagnosis of our screwed-up culture in addition to pointing out its symptoms. If the entertaining script and humorous performances are enough to leave you happy, call them a placebo.
Turning to the family-unfriendly side of cookie-cutter mediocrity, Charlie’s Party is about a New York woman throwing a cell-phone—that is, partner-swapping—get-together for her 30th birthday. Sound like a ticket to sloppy soft-core fun? On the contrary: It’s quite unlikely that there’s another orgy movie out there that’s more boring or irritating.
Written and directed by first-timer Catherine Cahn, the 80-minute film amounts to little more than the story of a spoiled brat trying to force her miserable, personality-free friends to sleep with one another. Charlie (Alissia Miller, who looks a good 35, 36) is a former hotshot VJ who’s now miserably selling knickknacks on the Home Value Shopping Network. She’s throwing the party not only to show how hip she still is but to prove to her boyfriend, Dylan (Chris Tardio), that she doesn’t care that he slept with another former VJ, the Frederick’s of Hollywood–model–looking Zoe (Kim Director), who’s now up for an Oscar. (This rationale, it should be noted, is more clearly explained in the press-kit synopsis than in the film.)
Charlie even invites Zoe to the party, along with Jane (Nancy Anne Ridder), a former college friend who’s now a lesbian; Sarah (Sabrina Lloyd), an uptight writer; and Tom (Mark H. Dold), Sarah’s husband, who visits prostitutes because he and his wife apparently never have sex. A goofy, insecure guy named Nick (Eron Otcasek) is also asked to, um, come.
Even though everyone is reluctant to go, soon they’re all in the throes of such only-in-the-movies expressions of anticipation as rehearsing conversations in front of mirrors and practicing kissing on pillows. Then they’re tarted up, headed to the Connecticut home of someone’s mother, and drinking heavily—which even a teetotaler would do when faced with Charlie, who wears nearly circuslike makeup and screeches, “I am turning 30, and I’m not going to let anyone fuck this up!” You’d question why this woman even has friends, except that the rest of them are jerks, too.
Charlie’s Party gets briefly titillating when the partygoers quit snapping at each other—they still don’t want to go through with the sex, see—and start talking about their fantasies during dinner. But then, as you knew they would be, asses are freed and minds follow. Even though no one in the group, not even any member of the two couples, seems to have any chemistry with anyone else, a few end up in a threesome; others apparently have potentially life-altering experiences together. During a montage of the postcoital swappers, there’s a laughable song whose theme is having someone to come home to. Even more laughable is the solemn trip back to New York, on which every character is implicitly thinking deep thoughts. That’s dumber than all of the movie’s nitwit characters combined.CP