American Dreamz: When satire doesn’t go far enough

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, voilà ce qu’il me faut pour devenir à la mode. C’est plus rapide que Star Academy, ça dure plus longtemps, tu voyages dans le monde entier, tu donnes des conférences, tu descends dans des palaces, tu montes sur scène avec U2, tu prends le thé avec le pape, une bière ou deux voire trois avec Chirac, une vodka givrée avec Poutine, un cigare humide avec Clinton, une grosse ligne avec Bush Junior, un masque à gaz avec Saddam Hussein, à chaque fois que tu dis une connerie tout le monde entier il t’écoute 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 bientôt 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 déjà dit je veux être au minimum star mais c’est pas pour la frime ou quoi, c’est pour la survie. Regards, si tu prends par example un Français normal, blanc et qui chante, eh bien lui il peut être 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.

11 thoughts on “American Dreamz: When satire doesn’t go far enough

  1. Great review.

    “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.”

    That is the problem with most contemporary American mainstream films I am doomed to translate: no risk. They are playing it safe to cater to as large an audience as possible. No tough moral dilemmas, no edginess.

    “But then, in the end, Omer decides not to blow himself or the President up because he has begun to reconsider his beliefs about America.”

    I can understand why the writers would not want to blow up the president after 9-11 but the ultimate motive for Omer to reconsider is indeed weak. But maybe it is just a culture difference between Europe and the US. Consider this review: http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20060420/REVIEWS/60419002/1023

    “This is dark comedy in the spirit of “Dr. Strangelove,” a movie that thought the unthinkable. “American Dreamz” isn’t nearly as good as “Strangelove,” perhaps because it lacks its merciless ironic detachment. But I was surprised at the movie’s daring, at its frank depiction of the Bush-like president as the clueless puppet of his staff.”

    De gustibus non est disputandum.

  2. Thanks.

    One of the things I’ve noticed here is that the American films and TV shows that are the most widely viewed in Europe are the ones with the least novel or interesting content. My working hypothesis is that subtlety and context don’t translate easily and that European audiences, like Americans ones, respond better when they don’t have to think too much. The kinds of American films that make more overseas than domestically are special effects films with pitiful plots and scripts, or simplistic movies that act as vehicles for known stars. I think the studios are responding to this.

    American TV, in contrast, has gotten a whole lot better in the last 5-10 years. TV networks do make risky shows with actual content. But American cinema seems empty.

    I’m quite disgusted at the state of domestically made European TV (although Berlin, Berlin dubbed in French is forcing me to reconsider German TV). And I can’t take the wife to films that aren’t in English, so I never get to see locally made movies. I hope local films are better than what Hollywood is doing these days.

    I can’t account for Ebert’s review either. There are a few other American reviews in the same vein. Maybe it’s just that in Europe, I’m forced to explain that Bush isn’t stupid to people who firmly believe that he’s just a “clueless puppet” of the oil industry, while in the States perhaps the idea that the President is an idiot is still novel to some people.

  3. “One of the things I’ve noticed here is that the American films and TV shows that are the most widely viewed in Europe are the ones with the least novel or interesting content. My working hypothesis is that subtlety and context don’t translate easily and that European audiences, like Americans ones, respond better when they don’t have to think too much.”

    Absolutely, mass consumerism will be mass consumerism. Also, buying broadcasting rights to foreign (often American) productions is way cheaper than producing your own stuff. And, in general, American movies ‘look’ good because of the big budgets.

    As to context and subtlety, some stateside products are simply not fit for foreign markets because they are so US oriented. Take for instance the movie “Damaged Care” about the American healthcare system that I had to translate a few years ago. That one was so specific that I still wonder why somebody in Europe decided to broadcast it here. I really struggled to make this movie understandable to a non-US audience.

    On the other hand audiences in Western Europe have been watching American productions for ages and have, at least unconsciously, acquired quite a big amount of American popular culture. There is some room to maneuver.

    But in the end it is about the bottom line. And that I can understand too.

    As to the quality of European domestic tv, well, just look at Endemol. You have American Idol and we have Star Academy. We really do not differ that much.

  4. >although Berlin, Berlin dubbed in French is forcing >me to reconsider German TV

    that’s a very popular opinion, apparently. I’ve never seen it, but I’ve received praising emails from French friends who seem to have fallen in love with the show, or Felicitas Woll for that matter ;).

    About the film: I’m not so sure your initial quote about “not being nothing” doesn’t also apply to the white trash you’re referring to. In fact, I’m not sure their situation is necessarily better if they feel similarly estranged from their societies without any clearcut scapegoat like religion or racism. In some sense, that does make them even more invisible.

    However, the 15-minutes-fame thesis, has for all its intuitive merits, also a lot of holes. Still, it’s been recently been awarded a little more attention as Hans-Magnus Enzensberger published a treatment about “the radical loser” (in English via signandsight.com – http://signandsight.com/features/493.html)

    In fact, just last Friday, there was a conference about “victims and losers” in Berlin about this (http://www.einstein-forum.de/index.php?id=521&L=1&tx_ttnews%5Btt_news%5D=24&tx_ttnews%5BbackPid%5D=505&cHash=84e466bb6a).

    I’m still gonna watch AmericanDreamz though. I found the trailer a couple of weaks ago and I loved the scene where the white trash girl is breaking up with her boyfriend because… “your life is here… and my life is like… wrooom!”… girls 😉

  5. “As to the quality of European domestic tv, well, just look at Endemol. You have American Idol and we have Star Academy. We really do not differ that much.”

    Yes, European reality TV is not very different from American reality TV. But look at Buffy, the Vampire Slayer, The Sopranos, Desperate Housewives, Lost… heck, even the CSI franchise. Where is the European equivalent? The Brits are doing better – British TV seems to have good shows to compare with Americans ones – but where I can I find a continental European program as engaging as any of the Americans ones I named?

    Bad American TV and bad European TV seem comparable. But there is also really good American TV. Now, having only just in the last few weeks discovered Berlin, Berlin, I can name exactly one show as good as America’s best.

    I realize that money is one of the issues. Even the largest single language European markets are smaller than the global Anglophone market by a large difference. But except for CSI and maybe Buffy, none of those shows relies on terribly high budgets for stunts and effects to work. Comparable programs could be made in Europe. Why aren’t they?

  6. “I’ve received praising emails from French friends who seem to have fallen in love with the show, or Felicitas Woll for that matter ;).”

    Yes, it’s something like that. Felicitas Woll has this look that… in French, I’d have called it abordable. Totally hot, in the sort of sweet but confused girl-next-door sort of way that suggests she might actually sleep with a schmuck like you. It’s a very valuable trait in a young actress. I admit (a little sheepishly) that that was why I started watching. But the show actually is good on its merits, not just for its main actress.

    “I’m not so sure your initial quote about “not being nothing” doesn’t also apply to the white trash you’re referring to. In fact, I’m not sure their situation is necessarily better if they feel similarly estranged from their societies without any clearcut scapegoat like religion or racism. In some sense, that does make them even more invisible.”

    That’s exactly it. There could have been brilliant satire in seeing the two things in the same light: Needing to be somebody regardless of the personal cost as motive both for the things Americans do to get on TV, and the things terrorists do.

  7. Tobias, now that I’m reading the article on the “lone loser” you linked to, I’m trying to get a copy of a book called “Going Postal” by Mark Ames of the Moscow Exile. Apparently, he proposes an alternative explanation for “lone loser” type killings: as a form of slave rebellion. I haven’t read it because I’m waiting for the wife to bring me back a copy from the States, so I can’t vouch for it. Ames is a “ha ha, only serious” kind of guy, but if you come across it somewhere, you might find it interesting.

  8. >Comparable programs could be made in Europe. Why >aren’t they?

    Because it’s not about production budgets, but development budgets. A producer with a single hit show in the US can support a larger portfolio of trials than that is the case in Europe. That’s why the better concepts and scripts have more time to develop, I think. The time from concept to production is much shorter in Europe. I think this doesn’t become apparent in mediocrity, but it’s a sure way to make sure nothing overpolished and coceptually thought-through hits the screen.

    And there’s also the issue that, until recently, no one in Europe ever really thougth about seriously licensing tv rights. There’s the occasional “Schwarzwaldklinik” and “Derrick” in Chinese, but as opposed to even the weakest US series, European producers simply did not take international syndication overly seriously.

  9. I had wondered abut licensing. That was also one of the reasons I stated watching Berlin, Berlin on MCM: MCM shows scads of cheap American TV dubbed into French. So usually, if they run something, I can recognize who’s in it. But I couldn’t recognize anyone on Berlin, Berlin and it took me a few minutes to figure out that that was it wasn’t an American show.

    But here’s the question then: can European shows compete in the dubbed market with American ones? Or is the size of the US market so great that they can afford to take less money from overseas and price local production out of the cross-border market?

    The differences in development budgets though, that’s an interesting explanation. I hadn’t thought of that.

  10. There is also the fact that America runs about 5 to 10 years in front of Europe with TV. 10 years ago the shows in America were also not particularly good.

  11. “One of the things I’ve noticed here is that the American films and TV shows that are the most widely viewed in Europe are the ones with the least novel or interesting content.

    Why it’s that’s way I really fail to understand.

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