'Dreamz' Lampoons 'American Idol,' Terrorists and a Hapless President

American Idol” is not just a crappy TV show — it’s a phenomenon that’s seeped way beyond the widest big screen. Anyone who’s derisively wailed Kelly Clarkson songs or imitated Simon Cowell’s churlish insults knows the show is ripe for ridicule. So how can us intelligent folks enjoy “Idol” without the guilt? Enter “American Dreamz” — a fictional TV show that just so happens to mirror a certain real one.

Hugh Grant plays Martin Tweed, a composite of Ryan Seacrest and Simon Cowell, talking with Cowell’s accent and strutting around in Seacrest’s trendy shirts and gelled hair. His portrayal of a megalomaniac with severe insecurities is deliciously grating; his various small crises of identity are highly satisfying.

A tanned and golden Mandy Moore bubbles over as Sally, a cute but cunning “American Dreamz” contestant gunning for the top spot. “American Idol” isn’t about the singing, and “Dreamz” isn’t either — almost a shame, because the musical numbers are a riot. Moore’s voice sounds beautiful — too good for a televised competition, really.

Equally enjoyable are the song and dance numbers of Omer, a wide-eyed terrorist recruit sent from the Middle East to live with clueless relatives in Orange County, who is accidentally selected for the show when his cousin Iqbal leaves the house at the wrong time and a TV crew overhears Omer singing show tunes in the basement. Flamboyantly gay Iqbal (played brilliantly by Tony Yalda), who has a taste for sequins, streamers and jazz fingers, coaches Omer — whose campy showmanship brings him head-to-head with Sally in the final. Omer elicits the same forehead-slapping as William Hung, but has none of his tone-deafness. Sally, though, is a ruthless competitor, even exploiting her dog-eyed military boyfriend (Chris Klein) to endear herself to the voting masses.

Meanwhile, President Staton (Dennis Quaid) elbows his way into the narrative from time to time. Is it a surprise that this presidential figure is hopelessly clueless without the constant input of his vice president (Willem Dafoe, sporting Dick Cheney’s glasses and halo of white hair), or that his wife (Marcia Gay Harden) affects a soothing Southern accent and talks to him like he’s a puppy? It’s clearly meant as an indictment of President Bush’s public stutterings and aversion to reading newspapers, but it’s too literal to succeed.

Lampooning the presidency is easy; but lampooning it well is much harder. “Idol” is such a huge institution, parodying it and it only would have made for an excellent 90 minutes.

But the movie takes on too much when it attempts to show us everything wrong with America. Yes, it’s funny to watch the president discussing anti-depressant doses with his wife or stroking a projection of the American flag, but it belongs in another movie.

“Dreamz” also misses an opportunity to lampoon the bizarre and fascinating chemistry of American Idol’s three judges, though the Seacrest-Cowell composite of Martin Tweed is everywhere, and fun to hate. Tweed is not only a lecher (he and Moore’s character share the sexual chemistry that only two megalomaniacs can find), but he’s the cruel puppetmaster of “Dreamz.” “I want … an Arab,” he says, while selecting the show’s finalists. Much of the movie is built on the absurd collision of terrorism and live television, and it’s daring to have Omer, a terrorist sleeper cell, as the most lovable character in the entire movie.

But writer and director Paul Weitz (“About a Boy” and “American Pie”) fails to realize that viewers will look to “Dreamz” for the same reason they love “Idol” — the glitz, the glamour, the schadenfreude of disastrous auditions and wrong notes, and the total awesomeness of judges making young hopefuls cry or fight amongst themselves. Sometimes the satire of “Dreamz” is forced, a bit of bitterness getting in the way of the gooey confection viewers want and have come to expect from “Idol.” Nevertheless, the absurd spectacle of “Idol” invites some self-criticism, and “Dreamz” hits plenty of high notes and delivers plenty of laughs.