I owe Thank You for Smoking an apology. A little while back, you may recall, I harshed on it a bit for having confused and contradictory political impulses. Which is still, I think, true - but what I only sort of realized then is that for a film to have confused politics implies that it's still trying to engage with politics in some fashion. It's still worth praising a film for being politically astute enough to be confused, just because truly political works are pretty hard to find in America.

American Dreamz, the latest from Paul Weitz of About a Boy and American Pie, is in no danger of receiving such praise from me. It's a rather trivial stab at meaningful satire, hamstrung by the writer/director's twin desires to create lovable characters, and avoid pissing off half the country.

Perhaps I just saw it at a bad time, only forty-eight hours after Stephen Colbert delivered the most vicious satiric attack that America has witnessed in my lifetime. Going from a man who could stare the president in the face and discuss torture camps, to a film whose depiction of the president is best summed up as "hardy har, he's stupid...but he tries so hard!" is going to tend to lessen the impact of the latter. But I really do think the problem is that Weitz is too nice for this sort of material.

Paradoxically, the film's greatest liability is its ambition - and when was the last time that was true of a Hollywood film? Simply put, Weitz casts his net too far, and ends up shorting everything. In one corner, we have the story of a nearly-illiterate puppet president (Dennis Quaid), who decides one morning to read the newspaper, to the horror of his wife (Marcia Gay Harden) and Chief of Staff (Willem Dafoe, made up to look like an anorexic version of Dick Cheney). In the other, a ruthless Midwestern girl (Mandy Moore) competes against a terrorist showtune fancier (Sam Golzari) on a hugely popular TV talent show hosted by the selfish, venal and British Martin Tweed (Hugh Grant). The two strands come together when the president agrees to guest-judge on the show to boost his falling approval ratings.

This second angle works a great deal better, partially because Weitz is in his comfort zone working with pop culture, and largely because Grant can do "charming bastard" in his sleep. I just wish there was more of it: I had no sense of time passing, and the actual television season is covered mostly in one montage. Sure, parodying American Idol is a cheap shot, but I found it successful in high-concept sitcom sort of way. The end bogs down in contrivance, beyond a doubt, but before that, especially Moore's dealings with her agent to create the perfect backstory, made me laugh even while I knew that I was smarter than the film.

But the poltical angle...dear God. Yes, yes, we all know that Bush is a goofy moron. And yes, his deliberate renunciation of reading and science are dangerous. But once you've said that, what's left? Weitz can't answer that, and the film quickly descends into a series of endlessly repetitive jokes about telling inopportune truths and having problems with the earpiece Dafoe uses to coach the president. Again: the film is too easy on the president. Strange, because it has no problem treating Grant and Moore like monsters. But no, the president is just a well-meaning incompetent with sweet heart. Satire can't work if it's not dangerous, and American Dreamz is as safe a comedy as you're likely to see.