"American Dreamz" is a bad-taste satire of politics, reality TV and Islamic terrorism that begs the question: how can satirists compete with what's happening in the real world? Quagmire here, potential nuclear strike there; even Dr. Strangelove -- that great slapstick farce that ends with the accidental annihilation of life on earth -- seems a tad optimistic.
It's too bad there aren't more nihilistic political comedies to help us all let off steam. It's because they make us laugh that satires can get away with showing us the bleakest stuff imaginable. Consider the Marx Brothers' "Duck Soup," which was the first great Hollywood depiction of the absurdity of war: it was World War I as a deadly clown show. But by and large, there isn't a rich tradition of political satire in American movies. Sometimes I think we work at preserving our naiveté.
It was hard to be naïve after the A-bomb taught us we could be instantly vaporized. With the counterculture arrived a new kind of humor, dubbed "sick." "Dr. Strangelove" had the subtitle "How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb." The original "Manchurian Candidate" is still among our most subversive satires: that a Joseph McCarthy-like Communist witch-hunter could be a Communist plant is ridiculous, but there's a kernel of truth. McCarthy was destroying the freedom he claimed to defend.
The smartest satire of recent decades is "Wag the Dog," with Robert DeNiro as an amoral political consultant and Dustin Hoffman as the sleaze ball Hollywood producer he hires to cover up a presidential scandal with a bogus military conflict. Here's a confluence of politics and showbiz only hinted at in "American Dreamz."
The new movie has a good premise. To win back the public, George W. Bush (or his alter ego, played by Dennis Quaid) is a guest judge on the finals of "American Idol" (or its stand-in, American Dreamz). But how the president gets there, talk about naïve. Although he's a dimwit, his eyes are opened by newspapers and magazines.
Even if you revere our president, you might concede he's hardly inclined to seek out opposing points of view. Only the most optimistic liberal could imagine him reborn as open-minded. It's not satire. It's science fiction.
"American Dreamz" has funny bits, parodies of "American Idol" singers and their cornball air-sculpting (although how can you top the original?). Hugh Grant's Simon Cowell figure delivers insults with aplomb. But most of the jokes are campy, like Islamic jihadists glued to "American Dreamz" in tents on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. For all its supposed outrageousness, "American Dreamz" has a soft center.
It's dumb cynicism and dumber sentiment does the opposite of what satire should be in these dark days. It leaves us more complacent.