''American Dreamz" is a political satire that's eerily emblematic of the moment we're living in: smart, spring-loaded with pop culture references, and far too good-natured to do any lasting damage.
Real satire -- like ''Dr. Strangelove," or ''Network," or ''The Manchurian Candidate" -- leaves an audience checking itself for wounds. Paul Weitz's effervescent farce, by contrast, plays like the Cartoon Network version of Robert Altman's ''Nashville," and for all the film's shallow daring -- not to mention gleeful, generous performances from a cast clearly having the time of their lives -- it never leaves any blood on the floor. The movie's a perfectly fun Tinker Toy.
Weitz's two biggest conceits -- that an ''American Idol"-style reality show could bring out the worst in a culture and that our president could be a genial pinhead controlled by White House insiders -- ain't exactly fresh groceries. Still, ''American Dreamz" pitches its softballs with style. Martin Tweed, the preeningly heartless British host of the title TV show, just may be the great comic role that has always eluded Hugh Grant. If Simon Cowell had in fact sold his soul to the devil (the jury's still out), Martin might be the result.
Similarly, only a savvy actor like Dennis Quaid could so slyly time the pauses between misfiring neurons that characterize the thought processes of Joe Staton, the US president who suggests a faithful but not terribly bright golden retriever. Staton awakes the morning after reelection and decides to read the newspapers for a change; what he learns there amazes and confounds him. ''There's three kinds of Iraqis," he informs his chief of staff (Willem Dafoe, dancing merrily through the movie with Dick Cheney's glasses and chrome dome). ''You knew about this?"
The events that bring the reality-show host and the head of state together are many and engagingly messy. For the latest season of ''American Dreamz," Martin orders his minions (John Cho and Judy Greer) to ''bring me some freaks," and they readily oblige. From Padookie, Ohio, comes Sally Kendoo (Mandy Moore), a Britney bottle-blonde whose eyes narrow with pleasure at the thought of eviscerating the competition. From Orange County by way of Afghanistan comes Omer (Sam Golzari), a saucer-eyed apprentice terrorist more than happy to forget glorious martyrdom for a chance to sing ''The Impossible Dream" on national TV.
Making fun of Islamic terrorists is about as dangerous as Weitz gets here, and the satire might sting if the jihadists weren't such silly old bears, extras with glued-on beards. Still, a shot of Omer's sleeper-cell members sitting in his extended family's hot tub is almost worth the price of admission, as are all the performances by the actors playing the flush-with-success Rizas. In particular, Tony Yalda as Omer's queen-bitch gay cousin Iqbal and Shohreh Aghdashloo, coming on like a mischievous Arab Mrs. Robinson as Omer's aunt, pocket the movie whenever they're onscreen.
They have competition -- at times, ''American Dreamz" is as crowded as an opening episode of ''The Apprentice." In Sally's corner is her sweet, dim Iraq-vet boyfriend (Chris Klein), of whom she says, ''Every time he smiles, I want to hit him with my shoe." Marcia Gay Harden channels Laura Bush as the first lady -- fish-in-a-barrel stuff, this -- while Adam Busch plays a contestant who's a rapping cantor. In general, the reality-show segments get their laughs without being noticeably more bizarre than what's already on ''American Idol."
Similarly with the political humor, although Quaid makes the president almost touching in his desire to form a complete sentence on his own and Dafoe really should do comedy more often: it seems to clear his pores. You'll find more trenchant potshots on ''The Daily Show," though, and if that makes a depressing case for the current state of satire, I mean it to.
''American Dreamz" tries to wind it up big, with all the characters and agendas coming to a head on the climactic show. If Weitz lacks the finesse (or the right editor) to pull it off, at least he doesn't spoil the vibe he has established; the movie stays true to its cheerful tastelessness.
At the same time, you're aching for ''American Dreamz" to go a little crazy, to risk the cauterizing comic anger that blasts assumptions and frees minds. At one point, Omer innocently asks, ''Are Americans to blame for America?" That's a question with more levels than a shopping mall. Weitz lets it lay, though. He's content to tickle our ribs here, and you want to tell him: The hell with that -- make us hurt.
Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.