In Paul Weitz's latest film, Martin Tweed (Hugh Grant) is the acid-tongued British host of the smash hit reality TV show, American Dreamz, a barely fictionalized version of American Idol. The show's season finale pits the blindly ambitious Midwestern blonde Sally Kendoo (Mandy Moore) against Iraqi refugee and show-tunes fan, Omer Obeidi (Sam Golzari), who's secretly a would-be terrorist.
Meanwhile, President Staton (Dennis Quaid), a Bush clone complete with a doting Texan First Lady (Marcia Gay Harden) and a megalomaniacal Cheney-like chief of staff (Willem Dafoe), is fresh off his recent re-election and unaccountably begins to read newspapers, thus seriously complicating the worldview presented by his staff. To counter rumors of the president's mental imbalance, the chief of staff books him as a judge on the season finale of American Dreamz.
Tweed is cut from the same cloth as Grant's earlier strangely likeable cads. He and Sally, another rapacious seeker of fame and fortune, are perhaps the most honest and self-knowing characters in the film, each recognizing the other's naked ambition without judgment.
The ensemble acting here is potent, whether it's Harden and Dafoe manipulating Quaid's hapless president into finally leaving his bedroom or Sally's sly agent convincing her boyfriend (Chris Klein) -- another innocent caught up in the system -- to propose to Sally on live TV as a way to boost her votes in the series finale.
Satire is a curious thing. The ability to see humor in the absurdities of our world -- where terrorists in an Afghan camp can tune into the latest episode of American reality TV and dial in their votes on military-issue satellite phones -- is necessary to get the satire in American Dreamz. But it helps to be a cockeyed optimist, too -- to believe that a young Iraqi man and a suddenly unscripted American president might actually bring out the best in each other in a crisis. After all, doesn't everyone have a dream?