Dinklage and MacLaine Make Audiences Believe in the AMERICAN DREAMER

“What if she lives another twenty years?”

In many ways, American Dreamer is exactly the kind of film I was hoping it would be. It’s a dark comedy that is timeless, and largely untouched by overly modern flourishes. It’s got an ideology that feels grounded in reality but maintains a literary feeling that allows you to get lost in its storytelling. The movie could be considered a dinosaur to many, but for some, these kinds of films remain a breath of fresh air for the way they refuse to succumb to what the current movie-going climate is about, opting instead to tell stories that pinpoint the intricacies of people both real and unconventional. Director Paul Dektor and writer Theodore Melfi share a sturdy understanding of how such a film functions and have concocted a tale that celebrates the fact that life is essentially a tragedy with laughs variously inserted throughout. At its best, American Dreamer works spectacularly when it functions as a human comedy with shades of realism. At its worst, it’s a movie that’s oddly careful about where to take things and how far, relying instead on the fantastic performances of its two leads.

The central character in American Dreamer is Phil Loder (Peter Dinklage), an economics professor who would like nothing more than to own a home where he can be free to write his novel. But his meager salary ensures that this dream will remain nothing more than that until he comes across a notice in the classifieds advertising a sprawling manor for sale at just $250,000. After Phil’s realtor Dell (Matt Dillon) checks things out, he informs Phil that the house will be fully his for that price as soon as its elderly longtime owner Astrid Fanelli (Shirley MacLaine) passes away. When Phil meets Astrid, he sees that she’s actually nowhere near death, placing his dream further away from reality.

The trailer for American Dreamer promises a comedy comprised of dark laughs from its slightly oddball plot. On this point, it delivers mainly because of the kind of humor it sets its sights on. The movie isn’t a comedy that flat-out makes you laugh, but it does manage to showcase humor in the truth and tragedy of what it’s like to merely try and exist in the bleak landscape that society has become. American Dreamer is funny much in the way that life itself is funny without being exactly laugh-out-loud hysterical. Every turn Phil makes to try and improve his situation, every revelation that Astrid makes about herself that squashes any hope the former has is where the comedy comes from and is a large reason the film can work when it sometimes shouldn’t. When conventional humor is inserted by the filmmakers, the results are largely hit-and-miss. Scenes of Phil looking up Astrid online only to get an X-rated surprise and his desire to obtain a parking space sticker at the university he works at quickly wear out their comedic welcome. American Dreamer‘s more potent upfront laughs can be found in its dialogue, which is wonderfully sardonic. “You’re my favorite professor,” a student tells Phil at one point. “You must be a freshman,” he replies.  When a surprise offspring of Astrid (Kim Quinn) shows up, Phil tries to woo her with wine, telling her: “You have nothing to lose but your demureness.” As far as humor goes, American Dreamer knows the right approach to take when it comes to the dark comedy realism it’s striving for.

Thematically, American Dreamer is about both the vision of the American dream and the quest to obtain it. There’s some wonderfully slight commentary in the rather surreal trip that Phil’s life takes after getting the house of his dreams. For a character who starts off in an already melancholic place, seeing him plunge even further downward mentally and financially shows how the quest for the American dream is just as toxic as actually getting the American dream. It’s hard not to appreciate the subtlety in the slow-creeping madness that builds in the lead-up to this, the film’s thesis statement.  The various moments where we see Phil working on his novel are pleasant and provide intriguing hints about where his mental state is which manage to move the plot along in their own way. But this doesn’t disguise the fact that there’s not enough banter between the two main characters to invest in a relationship of any kind, despite the film wanting us to. When Phil and Astrid’s relationship comes to a close, it’s obvious we’re supposed to feel more than we do. But we don’t, and this is the reason that the third act doesn’t hit the way it should. Adding to this is an imaginary wife Phil has conjured up, which just proves to be a lost cause of a storyline. Still, there’s some kind of morbid enjoyment in trying to figure out if Phil is living in the somewhat macabre novel he’s writing or in the sobering course he’s teaching. Perhaps it’s both.

I’m happy with the variety of roles Dinklage has been attaching himself to in recent years. His turn in last year’s rather messy, but ultimately intriguing dramedy She Came to Me showed the actor unleash a tragic hilarity that was the film’s heartbeat. He brings that same mixture of sadness and wit to Phil, making him a downtrodden figure who only has just enough fight left in him. Seeing Dinklage react to his character’s endless stroke of bad luck elicits laughter and the right kind of sympathy needed to make the character work. As the film’s other lead, MacLaine surprises with her take on Astrid, playing her not as a harridan or a senile old coot, but as a woman who has lived her life somewhere in the clouds but has picked up the ability to deliver a barb or two. It’s yet another great turn from a true movie legend.

The decision not to go laugh-out-loud funny with American Dreamer was the right one. However, even though it’s not a traditionally “funny” comedy, the film still forgets to have fun with its rich premise and never fully realizes the potential of what the film could be. But the movie is worth it solely for the lively performances from Dinklage, and especially MacLaine. As someone whose New Year’s Day ritual includes watching The Apartment, I take great pleasure in the fact that the actress is still working and finding roles with which to reinvent herself. In the last 10 years she’s played a free spirit romancing Christopher Plummer in Elsa & Fred, a bitter widow determined that she will have an active hand in writing her obituary in The Last Word, and a mysterious woman hunting down a valuable painting in the second season of Only Murders in the Building. MacLaine will be turning 90 next month and when asked during the junket for American Dreamer if she had plans for this milestone birthday, she quickly replied: “I’ll be on set.”

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