When does humorous criticism become satire? Is it satire when you take the piss out of George W. Bush? Doesn’t satire imply a target slightly less easy to hit?
This is what I was thinking when I watched American Dreamz, the 2006 comedy about a Pop Idol-esque show which manages to pit a blonde down-home country girl (Mandy Moore) against a would-be Muslim suicide bomber (Sam Golzari) in a singing contest judged by Hugh Grant and a suspiciously Bush-like President (Dennis Quaid).
Perhaps in order to hit something, American Dreamz (written and directed by Paul Weitz) aims at everything. The film takes a fairly broad-brush approach at first to the President, a dullard ruled by his Cheney (Willem Defoe, looking every inch the Dick). The President suddenly discovers that there is a greater world out there than he’s been led to believe (“Did you know there are two kinds of Iraqistanis?”) and then hides himself away to read the papers. His appearance on American Dreamz is an attempt to restore his fading popularity.
This to me does not seem like satire, or at least not anything new in satire. Enough jokes have been had at Bush and Cheney’s expense to make another 90 minutes’ worth redundant. Nor does the film have anything amazingly interesting to say about the reality ‘talent’ contest genre: yes, we know its hosts are arrogant tossers; yes, it’s clear that the heartless blonde bitch will always win.
But the satire kicks in when things get more complicated and start to turn in on themselves – when we reach the point where less obvious targets are hit in less obvious means. The “War on Terror” comes up several times, both as the motivation for the show-tune loving suicide bomber and as the destination for Mandy Moore’s newly ex-boyfriend.
Instead, however, of showing how empty the “War on Terror” project is, it turns proto-terrorists into mass consumers of American culture and patriotic Americans into suicide bombers. This is a new, sharp angle on an omnipresent facet of our recent lives, humorously tackling and transforming heavy situations and stereotypes into weapons of mass deconstruction.
Satire is not a custard pie in George W’s face, but should be subtler and less expected. Although I struggled to see all of American Dreamz as satirical, some of its best moments certainly were – and it got me that bit closer to understanding quite what makes something satirical.