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Hollywood: Enough With the Father-Son Dramas, Already!

In his new film, the social drama At Any Price, director and co-writer Ramin Bahrani examines how the transformation of food into intellectual property through seed patents has corrupted, impoverished, or dissolved the American family farm. As with the Iranian-American director’s previous films (Man Push Cart, Chop Shop, Goodbye Solo), At Any Price boasts a wealth of lived-in details, from Dennis Quaid’s dad jeans to the dirt-streaked ATVs its rural characters hop on to get from one end of their property to the other. Jarringly and disappointingly, then, Bahrani explores this radically modern corporate-scape through an archaic narrative about an Oedipal struggle between father (Quaid) and son (Zac Efron).

At Any Price arrives on the heels of another overwrought père-fils melodrama, Derek Cianfrance’s The Place Beyond the Pines. Cianfrance’s follow-up to his debut Blue Valentine stars Ryan Gosling and Bradley Cooper as a pair of young fathers who briefly cross paths, only for their teenage sons to suffer the consequences of that fleeting but catastrophic meeting many years later. Price and Pines are the latest entrants to a subgenre of father-son narratives preoccupied with questions of legacy and inheritance set in contemporary times, a genus of stories that share a not-so-distant ancestor in Hamlet and that arguably reached its cinematic apex in The Godfather.

The appeal of father-son narratives is obvious and manifold. It’s a capacious frame that can hold many different types of stories at once: about family ties and honor, about psychosexual needs and conflicts, about clashes between tradition and modernity, duty and desire. It’s that very multiplicity of thematic echoes, not to mention allusive reverberations, that make the modern father-son melodrama feel so grand on the one hand — and so grandiose, antiquated, and irrelevant on the other. (Also, it’s a chance to double the demographic reach by casting a beloved old actor and a hot young one.)

Pines and Price could have avoided those latter qualities had they not borrowed Aristotle’s conception of women as empty vessels through which homunculi — i.e., sons in beta mode — pass through. (Inadvertently or not, Beyond the Pines drives this point home by casting Dane DeHaan, who doesn’t look remotely Latino, as Ryan Gosling and Eva Mendes’s son.) But then they’d have to be very different movies, since the assumption of any père-fils narrative is that women don’t matter. Men drive the story, while mothers, daughters, girlfriends, and wives are reduced to obstacles, status symbols, or occasionally, as with Kim Dickens in At Any Price, a mom ex machina. Female characters with agency are already rare in Hollywood, of course, but father-son stories exclude women by design.

It’s ironic, then, that such profoundly un-nuanced narratives are routinely commended as “Shakespearean” — a term ascribed to both Price and Pines by many critics. British colonists of centuries past brought copies of Macbeth and The Tempest into Indian and African classrooms, decreeing that the 16th-century man in the flattened dog-cone collar and shoulder ruffles had a uniquely universal and enduring worldview that the Queen’s new subjects should adopt to civilize themselves. That myth of Shakespeare’s universal relevance persists to this day, which is why even the Bard’s most dusty or offensive plays, like the cross-dressing romance Twelfth Night or the patently misogynistic Taming of the Shrew, still get updated to contemporary settings.

In the same way that British culture was overprized by Victorian colonial administrators for its Shakespearean influence, father-son narratives seem to be similarly privileged by critics for their debt to Hamlet. However flawed the knockoff, the Bard brand appears to automatically confer father-son dramas with greater “ambition” than stories about other kinds of relationships, while forgiving, at least to a certain extent, other equally Shakespearean elements like credibility-straining plot twists, overdetermined characterization, and artificially inflated emotional stakes. More than a decade after its release, the chintziness of Gangs of New York, Martin Scorsese’s “Hamlet in America,” still rankles, and Steven Spielberg’s and Wes Anderson’s seemingly incurable daddy issues continue to limit their work.

But it’s a particular shame that Cianfrance and Bahrani — two filmmakers who excel at the intimate and the naturalistic — have been bamboozled into believing that their arrival at the gates of mainstream cinema need be heralded by Shakespeare-lite bombast and a rejection of the quieter, grittier work that got them there in the first place.

In an industry already crowded with fanciful impossibilities like talking animals, superheroes, and Tom Cruise characters, there’s a much greater, rarer accomplishment to be had in creating the kind of films they’d been already making, interesting stories about realistic people with realistic problems. Ambition needn’t be automatically assigned to remakes of a play we’re all familiar with, but perhaps it should be redefined, especially for male screenwriters and directors, as creating new stories with believable female characters — a project Cianfrance achieved once in Blue Valentine and Bahrani never attempted before.

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For At Any Price Director Ramin Bahrani, Bigger Films Demand Bigger Targets

Responding to the uproar earlier this month over the passage—and President Obama’s signage—of the so-called “Monsanto Protection Act,” the gene-bending agri-giant Monsanto issued a press release dismissing any attendant conspiracy theories as “worthy of a B-grade movie script.”

They got it half right.

Immediate in its politics yet Shakespearean in its echoes, At Any Price, the latest film from Ramin Bahrani (Man Push Cart, Chop Shop, Goodbye Solo), searches for America’s soul in the cutthroat world of contemporary agriculture. There the director finds an ethos worthy of Gordon Gekko: “The idea was to show how Wall Street has come to the family farm,” Bahrani says. “Instead of skyscrapers, you have corn.”

The film also marks Bahrani’s departure from a very scrappy form of indie filmmaking, at least by virtue of his cast: Dennis Quaid plays the Willie Loman-esque Henry Whipple, farmer and salesman for the Liberty Seed Co. Erstwhile High School Musical sweetheart Zac Efron is Henry’s son and NASCAR hopeful Dean, and the supporting cast includes Kim Dickens, Heather Graham, Clancy Brown, and young Maika Monroe, who seems to exists on a plane between archangel and meth-lab toy.

Researching the story in the Midwest, Bahrani heard farmers say “expand or die” almost as a mantra. “I heard it everywhere I went,” says Bahrani, who usually lives in Williamsburg, but stayed with several welcoming farm families during his time in Iowa and Indiana, where possession of even hundreds of acres of land is just a starting point. “You have 10,000 acres, then you’re a player,” Bahrani says at the offices of Sony Pictures Classics, his distributor. “But it’s like everything. Look at Walmart. The Walton family owns more than 40 percent of the country, total. And farms are like Walmart: The big farms squeeze out the small farms, towns disappear, schools close, people vanish.”

This isn’t news, exactly, but Dennis Quaid is: Under Bahrani’s direction, the veteran actor creates a painful metaphor for American self-delusion, his character’s façade cracking ever so delicately, layer by tortured layer. Henry—a coiled spring with a smile—is taking the “get big or get out” policy of American farming to its soulless commercial extreme. Early on, he even takes his disgusted son to a funeral of a neighboring farmer, trying to buy up his land before the body’s even cold. Quaid’s synthesis of glad-handing and cold calculation is chilling, and Bahrani is an obvious admirer.

“I’m used to non-actors,” he says. “I wasn’t sure how this was going to work. Then I saw him on this episode of Ellen doing improvisational comedy, and it gave me a glimpse into who he really was. He’s obviously talented. He’s iconic. He went into space [in The Right Stuff]. I thought, all these things could be turned upside down. This could really help me.”

Also, as Bahrani points out, people love Dennis Quaid. And Dennis Quaid is a pro. “We got to the point on set where I would start to say something to him, and he would just wave me off. I thought, well, that’s kind of rude. But then in the scene he would have it, exactly what I was going to say. I asked him how he knew, he said ‘Thirty years, kid.’ Just like that. ‘Thirty years, kid . . .'”

Amid his other ongoing crises—an affair with local beauty Meredith (Graham), the loss of his best-salesman status to his colleague, Jim Johnson (Brown)—Henry is also trying to get the Liberty people off his case: He’s been reselling seed, a violation of Liberty’s rules (and Monsanto’s). With Grant, his favorite son and presumed heir, having escaped the farm and its dysfunctional family, Henry tries to resuscitate a relationship with Dean, who isn’t having it. All of this is prelude to the Greek-flavored tragedy to come.

In one sense, Bahrani is demolishing whatever remains of the pastoral mythos of American farming, although he says it’s not an “agenda movie,” and he has no position on Monsanto. He says he recognizes that GMOs and the patenting of life forms are dubious pursuits; Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, is a friend and consulted on the film. But Bahrani also isn’t sure how the developing world is going to feed itself without the kind of high-yield seed that Monsanto has patented.

Bahrani can’t hide his pleasure at having erected, with Quaid, a monument to American hypocrisy in Henry Whipple, and taken a public potshot at Monsanto. He relishes taking swats at monolithic targets. His next project: is about the housing crisis in Orlando. He can’t reveal the title (“even the title is good . . .”) but he says it’ll be about the “99 percent sticking a dagger in the heart of the 1 percent.”

He breaks out his phone to show a photo of an ankle holster and an automatic pistol.

“Standard wear equipment for every real estate agent in Florida,” he explains, refusing to expand, but planting a seed of intrigue.

Also read: Farmers Must Expand or Die, Or Both, in At Any Price

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Farmers Must Expand or Die, Or Both, in At Any Price

Farm films blow up human drama to mythic, big-sky terms in which the world itself is represented by a character’s land, hard-earned and easily lost. Vast landscapes, both psychic and literal, are threatened by unstoppable outside forces. Kind of like zombie movies, farm films are vast canvases for directors to project whatever social issues ring their philosophical cherries. The villains are often greedy banks or bad weather, but director Ramin Bahrani’s At Any Price places a large, third-generation family farm in jeopardy not from a faceless lending institution, but from the doughy, Penney’s-clad inspectors of an agricultural biotech corporation.

Iowa farmer Henry Whipple (Dennis Quaid) has enlarged his family’s bountiful farmstead by absorbing competitors, and he supplements his revenues with a side venture as a seed distributor for a Monsanto-like company. His neighbors all do the same, squinting and smiling with multiple rows of serrated teeth during community gatherings. Bahrani finds tension between rapacious capitalism and the idealized fiction of rural life in farming communities, especially as their members engage in decidedly unpastoral, commodity-based feeding frenzies.

Whipple’s deepest wish is to pass his family’s legacy to his sons, but the oldest has fled across the globe, and the youngest, Dean (Zac Efron), hates farming. That kid is also a rebel who rejects your precious rules. The setting’s austerity strips the generational drama down to the archetypal terms that were best articulated by James Van Der Beek telling Thomas Duffy in Varsity Blues, “Ah don’t wahnt yore lahf.” A talented amateur stock car driver, Dean aspires to be a NASCAR racer and speed away from Iowa, probably ripping a few donuts through the cornfields on his way out.

And what kid wouldn’t want to escape this hard-featured landscape? It’s an unpretty topography of corrugated silos, cornfields, and hard sun, where there’s exactly one career option open to high school graduates. Bahrani’s portrayal of the culture cuts deep, ringing true in its dialogue, Walmart wardrobes, and such small details as Henry’s humble Casio watch and the Mead notepad in his shirt pocket.

Whipple is a man who lives at a significant distance from his soul, a wedge driven by his overbearing father (Red West), to whom revenue growth is greater than filial concerns, and to whom Henry has unfortunately never dared say “Ah don’t wahnt yore lahf.” As the film begins, glad-handing Henry is pitching an offer for a dead man’s land to a bereaved family, right outside the cemetery gates, which gives you some idea of his footing, soul-proximity-wise.

Quaid has a genius for broadcasting conflicting impulses. His body language twists uncomfortably away from his intentions, and his smile is built on the chassis of a cringe. Married to Irene (Treme‘s awesome Kim Dickens), whom he clearly loves, Whipple has tawdry office trysts with Heather Graham. Is it worse that he makes money on the down-low by violating genetic patents, holding back part of his harvest and reselling the seed stock?

The film, which compares Quaid’s agricultural shenanigans to DVD piracy, weighs patent infringement and adultery about equally. Therefore, according to the transitive property of moral transgressions, the exchange rate for spousal betrayal is 1:1 with ripping The Avengers. When Henry, facing the dire legal consequences of his actions, invokes wistful memories of his simpler, but more impoverished, childhood, his dad smacks him down, casting the American dream as a modern, air-conditioned combine “that drives itself with GPS.”

Henry’s primary competitor, salesman Jim Johnson, is played by Clancy Brown, here as crinkly and unctuous as Quaid. Johnson has scooped up some of Henry’s big seed accounts, and his hotheaded son challenges Dean on the racetrack. Where Henry’s business anxieties are visibly eating him alive, Brown is immune to the toxicity of laissez-faire agro-nomics. Business is business, and the dismaying profundity of his faith is closely aligned with Henry’s dad’s. “Expand or die” is the mantra Henry’s father handed down, the implication being that, in farm films, someone will have to do both.

The film does have its warm, beating heart. Dean’s girlfriend, Cadence (Maika Monroe), is smart enough to help Henry win back a lost client and to shame the older woman with designs on her boyfriend. Monroe is charismatic and funny, imbuing Cadence with uncynical irony and emotional depth. Cadence’s ultimate unwillingness to put up with Dean’s bullshit gives the film a moral compass and pretty much makes her the only character to walk away uncompromised.

In one of Bahrani’s few missteps, the film’s title sequence suggests that the Whipples are the only family left in the United States who capture all their happy moments in anachronistic, scratchy Super-8 footage. The format creates a forced idyllic memoryscape in assertive contrast to Whipple’s cutthroat capitalism, but it’s an overplayed hand, badly out of place in a film that doesn’t include kids in Davy Crockett hats, and an overdetermined metaphor for themes Bahrani illuminates later.

Also Read:
For At Any Price Director Ramin Bahrani, Bigger Films Demand Bigger Targets

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Movie 43 Will Be Passed Around Sixth Grade Classrooms for Years to Come

I saw an opening-day matinee of Movie 43 at a theater where they hadn’t bothered to put the title on the marquee, with a sparse audience composed entirely of single men, one of whom was puffing on a no-tobacco e-cigarette throughout. When I got home, I discovered that a pigeon had shit in my hair. These are pretty much the perfect circumstances under which to view this sordid sketch-comedy gang bang, slippery with bodily fluids, from a screenplay that might have been written over an all-night poker game bull session, all loosely strung together by a framing device in which an aspiring, perspiring screenwriter (Dennis Quaid) holds a studio exec (Greg Kinnear) hostage, hoping to get his obscene magnum opus made. Movie 43 was shot over the course of years by a host of celebrity guest stars doubling as guest directors, though official attribution goes to Peter Farrelly, who handled the leadoff skit. Setting the tone of what’s to come, this involves Kate Winslet on a blind date with Hugh Jackman, who unwraps his cashmere scarf to reveal a neck goiter that looks like a scrotum and testes, which he proceed to dip into drawn butter. What else? More stars than It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World! More body horror than the Cronenberg filmography combined with Hated: GG Allin and the Murder Junkies! The blank, shoe-button eyes of Seth MacFarlane! It’s the kind of thing you feel you should laugh at through a phlegmy, hacking cough—and it does get laughs, if inconsistently, predictable given the circumstances of production. And where most movies fade within hours, I see a bright future ahead for this sui generis work, which will be passed around sixth grade classrooms by odd-smelling kids for years to come. Nick Pinkerton

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Beneath the Darkness

Dennis Quaid’s usual aw-shucks decency gets subverted in his role as Ely Vaughn, Beneath the Darkness‘s seemingly upstanding small-town Texas mortician who, obviously, is actually a closet psychopath since he smiles all the time, smokes electronic cigarettes, and wears sweater vests. Unfortunately for Quaid, director Martin Guigui’s pathetic thriller doesn’t even have the pulse-pounding excitement of a second-tier Scooby-Doo mystery. A group of teens led by brooding bore Travis (Tony Oller) and obligatory cheerleader love interest Abby (Aimee Teegarden) notice one night that the recently widowed Vaughn is cavorting with a ghostly figure in his home and set about getting to the bottom of things. Naturally, this means the Revealing of Buried Secrets—and not just those of Vaughn, but also Travis, whose sister’s death years earlier has left him withdrawn and cursed with a laughably emo haircut. Because Vaughn’s murderous predilection is established from the get-go, Beneath the Darkness is one long waiting game as Travis and his crew of dullards determine just exactly how evil and creepy he is. This allows for plenty of time to observe Quaid in benign-madman mode, which forces him to try to compensate for a thorough lack of menace by blinking a lot. It’s not particularly scary, though it does create the rather humorous impression that he has an allergic reaction to the film he’s in. Can you blame him?

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Jerry Lee Lewis

Twelve days after tonight’s concert, the Killer will be 75 years young. He’s remained relatively visible since his 1989 biopic Great Balls of Fire, which starred Dennis Quaid(!) as Jerry Lee and Alec Baldwin(!!) as Jimmy Swaggart(!!!) and, though he’s slowed down a bit, he still showboats at the piano. At last year’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame 25th Anniversary concerts, he still had a whole lot of shakin’ going on (and most of it was voluntary), but more importantly, you could sense the underlying bloodlust with which he wrote his hits. Tonight is a celebration of aging gracefully and otherwise.

Mon., Sept. 13, 8 p.m., 2010

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Clichés of Pandorum Get Sorta Interesting

Despite too many cheap, sound-cue scares and a slow-boil plot that veers between tension and tedium, Pandorum—a dead-serious, horror/sci-fi pastiche that borrows, if unimaginatively, from everything from Alien to WALL-E—gets sort of interesting. Flight engineers Corporal Bower (Ben Foster) and Colonel Payton (Dennis Quaid) awake from a years-long “hyper-sleep” aboard the Elysium, a massive spacecraft launched from the increasingly uninhabitable planet Earth in 2174. With no memory of their mission, they find themselves in an abandoned wing of the craft, a predicament they discuss at great and scintillating length (“It’s cold in here!” Payton declares. “It’s fucking dark in here!” Bower retorts). Eventually, Bower ventures out to get the 411, encountering mummified corpses of his fellow crewmembers and then the gooey, writhing mutants marauding through the craft in search of human flesh. A team slowly materializes out of the terrorized survivors Bower meets on his way to try and reset the craft on its course to Tanis, an Earth-like planet. Much slimy mutant-battle ensues. Director Christian Alvart clearly attended horror’s new paint-shaker school of direction (motto: shaky = scary!), but the script’s twisty, end-of-the-world intrigue saves this otherwise leaden film from total self-destruction.

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Smart People: Deeply Ordinary

Smart people got no reason to live—and, sure, that’s not quite how Randy Newman sang it, but the point still stands. Because in Noam Murro’s directorial bow—one of those Sundance premieres starring famous people slumming it in dingy Indieland—the smart people ain’t doing much l-i-v-i-n’ at all. They’re just drifting along, heads in hands and up their posteriors whilst moping and groping their way toward another wanh-wanh tomorrow, during which they’ll wake up and commence bitching and moaning about how crappy yesterday was. Look . . . see . . . don’t you get it? The title’s ironic.

Like, take Lawrence Wetherhold, played by Dennis Quaid beneath a greasy moptop and a brushy beard. Lawrence is a misanthropic college prof who, when he’s not willfully forgetting his students’ names or altering clocks to duck office hours, is out peddling a pissed-off rant to publishers totally disinterested in his treatise on how he’s right and every other literary critic in the history of words is wrong, wrong, wrong. He’s also a crap single dad who has no idea what his children are capable of: His college-age son James (Ashton Holmes) is an aspiring poet worthy of The New Yorker, while his high-school-senior daughter Vanessa (Ellen Page) is too chickenshit to tell her father she got into Stanford.

The geniuses in the Wetherhold household can’t and won’t connect. They’re kept apart by the ghost of the late Mrs. Wetherhold, whose clothes still hang in a closet like she’s just off to the grocery store for a bit, and by their big brains, which have apparently devoured their hearts. Cue Chuck, Lawrence’s adopted brother, played by Thomas Haden Church (and rockin’ the best porn mustache this side of 1974). Against Lawrence’s wishes, the fuck-up Chuck moves into the room with all the dead wife’s clothes and starts loosening up the Wetherhold household—first, of course, with a little THC, followed by more appropriate doses of TLC.

Then there’s the other smart person added to the mix: Dr. Janet Hartigan (Sarah Jessica Parker), Lawrence’s former student, who still has a thing for the prof—understandable, as somewhere beneath the scruff and behind the gut is Dennis Quaid; inexplicable, as he’s a sumbitch sans class or manners. Their off-campus meet-cute takes place in a hospital, after Lawrence dings his head on the concrete while trying to steal his towed-away car from the university impound. That’s what they call “falling hard.”

The film progresses apace: Bastard meets beauty while heart meets brain, and the hard widower’s slowly softened into something more easily recognized as “human.” Which is all well and good and nice and sweet, except Lawrence is more interesting as a prick—funnier, in fact, more human than the guy who emerges from the hardened shell. But more to the point, the movie never really gives a reason—a motivation—for his evolution toward softydom. It just sort of, kind of, barely happens, not because it has to—not because the film’s shown anything approaching evolution or a love so great as to be life-altering—but because it’s supposed to, this being a movie about dumb-ass brainiacs obsessed with their own navels forced to consider someone else’s bellybutton.

It’s almost impossible to bear the film ill will, as it makes a case for compassion and tries awfully hard to be awfully sweet. But then what? Written by first-timer Mark Poirier, it’s all action without any meaning, a beginner’s-class screenplay populated by archetypes—the wise-beyond-her-years teen, the hardboiled widower, the reckless and feckless half-sibling, the nice lady who rescues the dick from himself—who just do things till they run out of unhappiness, the end.

Quaid tries awfully hard, as he lumbers through university corridors and threadbare hallways with the gait of a battered, broken man. Everyone else feels like they’re stepping into mushy, familiar footprints: How many times will Thomas Haden Church play the wisecracking ne’er-do-well, or Ellen Page be cast as the teen who sounds like a snarky 42-year-old? And Parker has two speeds nowadays, the humorless intruder who steps into a bastion of dysfunction only to emerge as loving and whole (see also: The Family Stone) and, well, Carrie Bradshaw.

A colleague offers the perfect description of a film like Smart People, in which the plot lurches toward an inevitable, obvious, and not particularly well-thought-out finale: It’s like the entire season of a sitcom whittled down to a single episode. There’s no time for characterization, no room for emotion, no interest in anything other than moving the story forward. It’s all action, no reaction. One minute they’re miserable; 90 minutes later, aww better.

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Meat Loaf’s In Search of Paradise

Staggeringly inessential if never unwatchable, In Search of Paradise offers a backstage pass to the first leg of Meat Loaf’s 2007 “Seize the Night” tour. The 59-year-old septillion-platinum star dutifully pushes a new album by disinterring the back catalog and lumbering back onstage (wearing . . . a Chargers jersey with a collared shirt underneath) to shake his jowls at hockey coliseums packed with sozzled Canucks. That Mr. Loaf has been a potent showman is little evidenced by anything shown of his traveling floorshow here (advised viewing is The Old Grey Whistle Test DVD, in which a ’70s-vintage Meat, of overflowing Chris Farley proportions, duets with Carla DeVito on an epic, exhausting “Paradise by the Dashboard Light”). The non-conflict that develops into the backbone of the doc is the “controversial” current staging of “Paradise,” in which he’s dry-humped by a petite backup singer. “I think Meat thrives on taking big risks creatively,” attests the obligatorily admiring co-star, regarding his inspiration to do the number in a throwback longhair wig. Cranky Loaf gulps his vitamins and makes a show of forbearing the shooting of this puff piece (an interviewee earnestly likens him to Falstaff and Cyrano). Identifiable low point: Dennis Quaid coming onstage to totally dork it up during a rendition of “Gloria.”

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TV Nation

Wanna knock the prez? Let’s make a show. . . preferably on television. Paul Weitz’s new satire American Dreamz imagines the Bush regime as an episode in the history of American entertainment and American Idol as the quintessence of U.S. democracy. So what else is new?

The vision of America as a vast, ratings-driven amateur hour is not without promise, but Weitz’s movie, named for the most popular TV program in its parallel universe, is disappointingly soft in its individual characterizations. Indeed, as befits a director whose slice of the American pie has been predicated on a self-proclaimed “franchise” of gross-out comedies, the movie is mainly about tolerance. (He knows, firsthand, that the American people have it.)

American Dreamz is a movie with two world-historic players and a raft of wannabes. Host of the eponymous TV show, Hugh Grant plays the role of the smarmy swine with convincing self-loathing. “I envy myself deeply,” he tells his gorgeous girlfriend as she leaves him. Scouting new contestants, Grant actually finds one as callous as he—an Ohio cheerleader (singer-actress Mandy Moore) who is as eager to exploit her Iraq war–injured boyfriend as she is to mimic Christina Aguilera.

Moore’s ultimate rival is a Chorus Line–loving Iraqi mujahid (avid newcomer Sam Golzari) sent to America by his disgusted comrades as a sleeper agent who will never be activated. Installed at the Beverly Hills home of his unsuspecting, bizarrely nouveau relatives, Golzari winds up on Grant’s show. America is the land of opportunity—his queeny cousin submitted an audition tape, and when the show’s representatives turn up, they take Golzari for the applicant. (Like Steven Spielberg in Munich’s second-worst scene, Weitz is pleased to exaggerate the appeal of American pop music for the Arab world.)

Meanwhile, America’s president (Dennis Quaid) has just been returned to office. In a paroxysm of rebelliousness, he elects to stay in bed and read a newspaper rather than meet the press. Harking back to the sitcom protag of Comedy Central’s That’s My Bush! the Weitz conception of our maximum leader as a timid moron is hardly unsympathetic. “My mom wanted to show my dad any idiot could do it,” Quaid explains to his sweetly medicated wife (Marcia Gay Harden), pushing the movie’s talent show premise into the political realm.

As one might expect, too much information precipitates a presidential breakdown; Quaid is shown surrounded by books, with Benjamin Barber’s prophetic Jihad vs. McWorld prominently positioned for the camera. Whether or not the president takes Barber’s argument seriously, Weitz surely does: Barber’s pre–9-11 formulation, “When Jihad and McWorld collide on television, there is little doubt about who wins,” turns out to be the movie’s article of faith and deus ex machina. The president’s controlling chief of staff (Willem Dafoe), a combination of Karl Rove and Dick Cheney, who in one of their funnier exchanges assures Quaid that “I’m there for you,” wants to restore the president’s plunging poll numbers by positioning him as a guest judge on Grant’s show. At this point, the mujahideen—who, like everyone else in this universe, are addicted to American TV—catch Golzari’s act and, realizing that he has a chance to go all the way, designate him their suicide contestant.

The eerie spectacle of a jihadist prancing through “The Impossible Dream” notwithstanding, American Dreamz should really have been funnier. But it’s not boring. Paddling vigorously through some mid-movie doldrums, Weitz unexpectedly brings everything together for a suitably madcap finale involving multiple betrayals and malfunctions, a remote-controlled president, starstruck terrorists, and an on-air marriage proposal. It’s not exactly The Manchurian Candidate, but the whole world is watching. Golzari’s rendition of “My Way” is nearly equaled by a heartfelt plea to “deal with reality” (including the admission that Middle East problems will never be solved). As if to prove the point, Weitz detonates a suicide bomb as a punchline.

To make its point, however, American Dreamz could not possibly be insulting enough. (Compared to the genuinely illiberal Team America, this is a love pat—despite Trey Parker’s cameo as a doomed contestant, the long-haired “Rocky Man.”) Quaid’s president is neither the petulant charmer we know and loathe nor the vain and cunning Bush of David Hare’s heroic docudrama Stuff Happens—although perhaps Weitz did see Hare’s play when it was staged in Los Angeles last summer. At any rate, American Dreamz poses the same essential question: “To what degree is this country culpable for its actions?” the dancing mujahid wonders. “Are Americans responsible for America?”

Ultimately, American Dreamz is less social satire than social realism—the contestants are virtually indistinguishable from those on the real American Idol; the pols are as comfortingly stupid as we might wish them to be. Bottom line and end of the day: American Dreamz is still flattering. The movie may have been made with the barest modicum of style and taste, but it is never as crass as its presumed audience.