“American Dreamer” is a mess of a movie, in which scenes of startling wit and emotional truth co-exist alongside entire subplots that are utterly inexplicable. It’s all over the damn place; its good ideas in near equal proportion to its bad ones, feeling less like a polished production than a filmed first draft, released as a rough assembly. As with most rough assemblies, there are gems buried in them. It’s a shame no one dug them out.
According to the opening credits, the movie is based on a story that was first heard on “This American Life,” though I’d be very curious to hear how that became this. Peter Dinklage stars as Dr. Phil Loder, a cultural economics professor who champions “a new way of thinking about economics,” culminating in one, not unreasonable question: “What do we need to be happy?” And yes, it’s the kind of movie that both opens and closes with its professor protagonist cleanly and explicitly laying out its themes in verbose classroom lectures. The “Once in a Lifetime” needle drop immediately after the first is a touch on the nose, and just in case we still don’t get it, a couple of scenes later, another character sneers, “Oh, I forgot. You’re a dreamer, not a doer.”
(These early scenes also include an odd sideswipe at a recent Best Picture winner: “The American Dream is not packing boxes for Amazon, living in the desert and shitting in a bucket.” Okay?)
Dr. Phil – he hates when you call him that – is obsessed with buying a home, even though he has no real savings or assets, and his only income is this low-paying non-tenured position. Yet one day, in the classifieds of all places, he finds a deal that sounds too good to be true: a beautiful home, on the cheap, provided he takes the “live in” option: living in a separate, shoddier part of the house until the current owner dies. “I’m not a doctor,” advises his broker (a very funny Matt Dillon), “but I’ll say this: she’s actively dying.”
Once the deal is made and Phil moves in, of course, he discovers that it is, in fact, too good to be true. The current owner, Astrid (Shirley MacLaine) is far from death’s door; she seems positively spry. Her logic for the live-in situation is that she doesn’t have any family to leave the house to, but her kids keep showing up. And the more Phil attempts to untangle the situation, the less sense any of it makes.
Much of this material hums along nicely, thanks primarily to the players. Of course, Dinklage’s charm goes a long way, and MacLaine is, well, MacLaine. Their two scenes are imbued with the causal pleasure of two pros doing what they do, and their odd dynamic leads to the film’s best (and darkest) running gag: being around the house, in a position to observe or overhear little accidents, he keeps saving her life, which is ultimately not in his best interests.
That’s enough to hang your movie on, but “American Dreamer” is burdened by all this… other, lesser stuff. Phil fancies himself a novelist, and the vision of himself at his desk with a view is part of what drives his home search, but the snippets we see of his prose are pretty dire. Ted Melfi’s script also leans too heavily into unfortunately slapstick, which Dinklage executes as well as he can, but it’s covered in narrative flop sweat. And the picture’s storytelling pattern, a constant drumbeat of slights and humiliations, gets more than a little monotonous. That stuff begins to feel like filler, as does some of the lesser story threads – including an entire, gratuitous subplot about a knockout student who seduces Phil, assuring him that “this isn’t a MeToo thing,” then turns out to be a psycho who tries to get him fired. Huh? At first, her forward moves are hard to distinguish from his daydreams and fantasies – all of which have an oddly retrograde misogynistic streak, which I guess we’re supposed to find endearing.
Screenwriter Melfi’s other films include “St. Vincent” and “The Starling,” so the problem of juggling tones isn’t exactly a new one, and first-time director Paul Dektor doesn’t figure out how to solve the problem. The inevitable serious turn is played with the proper pathos, but the filmmakers can’t leave well enough alone, indulging in outright corn in the closing scenes. It’s too bad; with some untangling and re-writing, they might’ve really had something here. [C]