A few months back, I picked up, on a lark, a short French novel called Allah Superstar authored by the pseudonymous Y.B. (generally known to be Yassir Benmiloud, columnist for the Algerian daily El Watan). I bought it entirely on the basis of the excerpt on the back cover:
Une fatwa, voilÃ ce qu’il me faut pour devenir Ã la mode. C’est plus rapide que Star Academy, Ã§a dure plus longtemps, tu voyages dans le monde entier, tu donnes des confÃ©rences, tu descends dans des palaces, tu montes sur scÃ¨ne avec U2, tu prends le thÃ© avec le pape, une biÃ¨re ou deux voire trois avec Chirac, une vodka givrÃ©e avec Poutine, un cigare humide avec Clinton, une grosse ligne avec Bush Junior, un masque Ã gaz avec Saddam Hussein, Ã chaque fois que tu dis une connerie tout le monde entier il t’Ã©coute vu que tu as une fatwa au cul le pauvre, alors que le monde entier il est autant dans la merde que toi vu que c’est bientÃ´t la fin du monde pour tout le monde.
A fatwa, that what I need to get famous! It’s faster than Star Academy [a French American Idol-type show], it lasts longer, you can travel the world, give speeches, stay in palaces, be up on stage with U2, take tea with the Pope, a beer or two or even three with Chirac, a chilled vodka with Putin, a humid cigar with Clinton, snort up a thick line with Bush Junior, share a gas mask with Saddam Hussein, and no matter what stupid thing you say everybody listens because you have a fatwa on your ass, while everybody else is just as deep in shit as you are seeing how the world’s gonna end real soon.
Allah Superstar, written as a monologue in several chapters, follows a young Frenchman of half Arab, half-European ancestry as he tries to become a famous comedian. Ultimately, he is seduced to, well, the Dark Side of Islam, gets his fatwa as part of a fundamentalist plot to make him famous, and when he is finally asked to perform at the Olympia in Paris (think: the French version of Radio City Music Hall) for a special September 11th performance, he blows himself up on stage, killing most of the audience.
This plot is similar enough to the one in the film American Dreamz (which has already been out for six weeks in the States, but only just came out here, and which I went to see this afternoon because, frankly, the World Cup is not my bag) that I wonder if “Y.B.” has considered suing the film’s producers. It’s far from identical, but weaker claims have led to studios to pay up.
But where Allah Superstar is a satire of French society that brings together the desire for fame at all costs, transgressive comedy and fears of terrorism, American Dreamz, directed by the man responsible for American Pie, is merely a little joke on shows like American Idol and President Bush. As satire, it falls far below the potential implicit in its concept.
The rest of this review contains spoilers, so you decide if you want to read it.
Early in the book, Allah Superstar has this key passage that tells us a lot about the motivation of the book’s protagonist:
Comme j’ai dÃ©jÃ dit je veux Ãªtre au minimum star mais c’est pas pour la frime ou quoi, c’est pour la survie. Regards, si tu prends par example un FranÃ§ais normal, blanc et qui chante, eh bien lui il peut Ãªtre soit une star soit une anonyme [...] Au contraire un jeune d’origine difficile [...] donc un Arab ou un Noir, et bien lui il a pas le choix: Soit il est une star soit il est rien. Pas anonyme, rien, c’est pas pareil.
Like I said, I want to be at least a star. I’m not just saying that, it’s a matter of survival. Look, if you take, for example, a normal white Frenchman who can sing, he can either be a star or he can be anonymous [...] On the other hand an underprivileged youth [...] – an Arab or a black kid – well, he doesn’t get that choice: Either he’s a star or he’s nothing. Not anonymous, nothing, it’s not the same.
This desire to avoid being nothing becomes an element of the narrator’s transformation from aspiring comic to suicide bomber. As an explanation for suicidal terrorism, it has some virtues. I can imagine something of the sort applying to young Palestinians – you can be nothing, just another nameless Arab in some crowded West Bank ghetto, or you can blow yourself up in an Israeli theatre and be a star, even if only briefly and only in death. But the 9/11 bombers were clearly people who had other choices.
I doubt that the author’s intent was ever really to explain the psychology of suicide terrorism. It would be a little strange to imagine that all suicide bombers have similar reasons for their actions. Still, considering that the whole plot of American Dreamz revolves around bringing together Al Qaeda and American Idol (albeit pseudonymously), this passage from Allah Superstar gives an inkling into the satirical potential that the film fails to live up to.
The plot goes as follows: Martin Tweed (Hugh Grant pretending to be Simon Cowell) is the producer of “American Dreamz”, essentially American Idol. He is a consummate ass, but still has enough human qualities that we are actually able to sympathize with him, especially after we find out that he is a deeply unhappy person and that he hates his show and desperately wishes to no longer have to do it. Sally Kendoo (Mandy Moore pretending to be Britney Spears) is a poor white trash girl who wants desperately to be a star when she is picked for the show.
So far so good. White trash willing to do anything to make it to the top is not a novel plot. There is a neat political reference when her agent, who is trying to fashion her into a winner, says “Everyone in America thinks they’re middle class. So they like to have someone to look down on.” Sally’s mother responds “But we’re middle class!” He answers, “90% of Americans think that they are middle class.” Denial ain’t just a river in Egypt.
President Staton (Dennis Quaid pretending to be Dubya), in the meantime having a crisis of conscience after his reelection, takes to reading newspapers (he’s seen reading The Guardian in one scene) and thinking for himself. First, the film portrays Bush far too sympathetically as a mere cypher for more nebulous interests, who, upon becoming enlightened, begins to try to do better. That characterization was more true of Reagan than Dubya. Molly Ivins has written at some length about how Bush has often benefitted from being “misunderestimated” and suggests that he is something far worse than stupid: foolish. There are some good zingers though. Like when the President says: “I can’t even remember why I wanted to get into politics to begin with. I think it’s because my mom wanted me to, to show my dad any idiot could do it.”
But where the film has trouble is with its prospective terrorist, Omer Obeid (played by unknown new actor Sam Golzari who, I’m afraid, is just not very convincing in the role). Having lost his mother to American bombing in Iraq, Omer has joined an unnamed terrorist organization run by someone who looks vaguely like Osama bin Laden. Here, he is less than a great success: He loves American show tunes and is caught dancing to A Chorus Line in his tent at the terrorist camp. As comedic setup, that’s fine – this is after all a comedy. But after being sent to live in Orange County with his suburban, consumerist cousins, the death of his mother – something that so angered him that he is supposed to have joined Al Qaeda to avenge her – just disappears. Never once does he express a hint of hostility towards America, not even at first.
Omer is, through various plot devices, selected as a contestant on American Dreamz. Once he is on the show and his terrorist colleagues discover that the President will be guest judging the final episode, he agrees to blow himself up in hopes of assassinating him. But then, in the end, Omer decides not to go through with it because he has begun to reconsider his beliefs about America.
That’s weak. This is the President that killed his mother! If my mother had been killed in a Bush-ordered war of convenience, I’d be pretty pissed off at him. Instead, the only resolution of a plot line that should have been central to the film is this dialogue:
President Staton: In terms of the Middle East, it looks like the problems over there are never going to be solved. I mean never, never, never, never, never, never. So, I’m sorry about that…
Omer: Mr. President, I deeply hope for all of our sakes that you are wrong.
President Staton: I hope so too.
That’s just so lame.
Far more time is lavished on the Sally/Martin subplot, as each one realizes that they are perfect for each other, being identically shallow and unworthy of the adoration they receive. Sally dumps her boyfriend William (played by Chris Klein who we all remember from American Pie) as soon as she gets onto the show. He, in response, joins the Army, goes through two weeks of “accelerated basic training” and gets shot on his first day in Iraq. The wound is one of those small flesh wounds that only good guys get in action movies. Upon his return from Iraq, Sally, on the advice of her manager, agrees to get back together with him because they think having a wounded vet as a boyfriend will get her votes on the show. However, Sally sleeps with Martin and William sees them (conveniently just before the climactic final episode of the season, when Omer is supposed to set off his bomb and William is supposed to propose marriage to Sally). Thus, after Omer abandons his bomb in the men’s room before going on stage, William finds it, straps it on, and goes out to confront Sally, saying he’d rather die than be without her. The studio clears, and William breaks out in song, broadcast live with Martin manning the camera until, while moving the camera in for a close up, Martin accidentally hits the button marked “Press Here to Explode” killing them both.
As satire, the whole thing is just weak. The one bright light in this film is Hugh Grant, who does a fine job of making pathos-ridden asshole come to life. Considering that the director and writer, Paul Weitz, got famous for American Pie, I am tempted to label the Martin Tweed character as the anti-Stifler. Stifler, from American Pie is a happy-go-lucky idiot who can’t quite understand why people hate him when all he wants is to make them happy. Martin Tweed is intelligent, capable and as awful as he can be, and yet gets from people nothing but admiration that he knows he doesn’t deserve.
But imagine what this film could have been if Omer’s motivation had been that described in Allah Superstar: the need to not be just nothing. It would have been possible to compare Sally’s desire to be a star at all costs with Omer’s desire to be a somebody, even at the cost of his life. One of the ugly truths about the West and its media culture is that for a large part of the population, you are either a celebrity or you’re nobody. That’s why most people love reality TV and why I hate it: Like the lottery, it’s little more than a way to bilk people for having hopes and dreams.
What if in the Middle East, you’re either a bomber or you’re nothing? That could have led to some very sharp satire. And, instead of illogically letting everybody off the hook at the end of the film, Omer might have refused to blow himself up because, as a finalist in American Dreamz, he wasn’t nothing anymore.
Now imagine that William, instead of getting a little flesh wound in Iraq, had had his legs blown off by an IED. Permanently handicapped, he would have been a better source of sympathy votes as Sally’s boyfriend, and on finding out that he was little more than a prop for her, it would have been far more plausible for him to want to kill himself.
And, with the two of them on stage with the President responsible for all the ills in their lives, both would have had the opportunity to confront him, to demand real answers.
There are risks in making satire. The biggest one is the risk that it won’t be funny. Perhaps that’s the reason why this film never really goes anywhere. I’m all in favour of making fun of Bush, and this film does have some laughs. But it’s incredibly shallow compared with the potential that it had.