Desperate times call for dangerous satires, and judging from the torn-from-the-zeitgeist targets of Paul Weitz’s sociopolitical comedy, you can assume it’s gunning for America’s cultural here and now. Audiences won’t mistake the movie’s Texas-accented dim-bulb Commander-in-Chief (Quaid) or bald puppetmaster Vice President (Willem Dafoe) for anybody but the White House’s current occupants, or fail to recognize the insanely popular TV show involving wanna-be pop singers and a gratuitously mean Brit host (Grant). Once the film sets up its narrative involving the President, an ambitious teen (Moore) and a Middle Eastern terrorist-in-training, the dial appears to be set for eviscerate. Instead, we get gingerly lobbed softballs in lieu of razor-sharp barbs, which begs a serious question: If you’re not going to go for the jugular, why even bother?
Tackling topics like vapid TV programming and modern politics—both so ridiculous already that they render parodies redundant—means you’d better offer comic insight and cut bone. The director, inexplicably, doesn’t do much of either, and other than the self-loathing that Grant and Moore bring to their subreptilian caricatures, the film says virtually nothing about the times we live in. Weitz’s refusal to go beyond gentle mockery and easy laughs turns what should have been a bloodbath into a powder puff. Satirists don’t have to constantly bare their fangs, but they can’t just gum their topics either; minus any real barkz or bitez, American Dreamz ends up painfully irrelevant. (Opens Fri; click here for venues.)—David Fear