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‘American Dreamer’ Review: Uneven Inheritance Comedy Squanders Shirley MacLaine-Peter Dinklage Pairing

The dubious ideology known as the “American dream” might have lost its meaning amid today’s economic conditions, when making rent each month counts as a triumph for most. But in debuting director Paul Dektor’s occasionally amusing yet messy dark comedy, “American Dreamer,” untenured East Coast economics professor Dr. Phil Loder (Peter Dinklage) holds onto its antiquated gist for dear life, indignantly teaching his subject with an idealist pursuit-of-happiness angle and fantasizing about the day he would proudly buy his very own house.

The trouble is, Dr. Phil (a nickname he detests) doesn’t quite have the means for the property of his dreams — not a modestly comfortable condo or anything, but a giant mansion that would set him back a few million dollars. Still, that doesn’t stop him from frequenting open houses at the kinds of homes he definitely can’t afford and sipping champagne among more qualified buyers. And somehow, his charming New England suburb’s haughty but well-meaning real estate broker Dell (a genuinely funny Matt Dillon) tolerates this pastime, despite knowing Phil’s financial reality and emotional outbursts that sometimes sabotage his events all too well.

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Opportunity for a prosperous life comes knocking when Loder spots an inconspicuous ad in the classifieds for the luxury estate of his wildest dreams, one he can purchase as-is for either a price in the neighborhood of five million, or for a quarter mil, though that unbelievable bargain price comes with a catch. The proviso goes like this: He’d move into the house’s shoddy side quarters at first and allow the lakeside manor’s aging, childless owner, Astrid Fanelli (the inimitable Shirley MacLaine), to live in the immaculate main house until her demise, upon which Loder would claim the ownership of the entire property.

With the ill advice of Dell, who thinks Astrid is already in her deathbed, Phil liquidates everything he owns and signs the contract for the steal of the century. But when something sounds too good to be true … well, it usually is. And the beguilingly cynical Loder quickly catches up with the facts. For starters, the octogenarian Astrid is far from dying. If anything, she’s way too healthy. And she doesn’t seem to be childless, either — every now and then, someone Astrid calls “one of my kids” shows up to fix up things around the house or join the two for dinner. One of them is Kimberly Quinn’s disapproving Maggie, who pledges to do everything in her power to void Loder’s contract, but ends up sleeping with him all the same.

Loosely inspired by a segment of NPR’s “This American Life” and written by “Hidden Figures” scribe Theodore Melfi, “American Dreamer” gives Dinklage the rough outline of a character he was born (and is often known) to play. In that, Loder is witty, mischievous and somehow appealingly misanthropic, qualities that Dinklage commands with ease through his signature piercing gaze and intensely baritone voice. The problem is, his character often seems under-realized on the page, a shell of someone who feels more like a hodgepodge idea than a real person, despite Dinklage’s best efforts. Combined with the tonally confusing script’s insistence on slapstick humor, and Loder frequently ends up being the butt of the joke through countless freak injuries he sustains around the house. That cringey running gag becomes unfunny fast.

Perhaps more troublingly, “American Dreamer” doesn’t seem to know what to do with the greatest asset it has in its hands: Shirley MacLaine, the legend. It’s of course predictable that the bitter meet-cute between Astrid and Loder would soon transform into a meaningful friendship and union, with Loder learning a valuable lesson about what matters most in a genuinely happy life. While that does happen, it develops with shockingly little time investment into Astrid. It’s no surprise that the film is at its best when it leans into the anticipated beats between the two, teasing a comforting, old-school intergenerational friendship movie. But inexplicably, we get only a handful of significant scenes with Astrid, who either disappears from the film for long stretches of time or gets herself into life-threatening accidents when she returns. Ironically (since he’s anxious to inherit), Loder winds up saving her life more than once, in a series of compassionate acts where his humanity rises above his financial interests.

Elsewhere (and instead of deepening Astrid as a character), “American Dreamer” squanders its runtime with taxing subplots. Among them is Loder’s affair with a scheming 30-something graduate student (Michelle Mylett’s Clare), a private investigator (Danny Glover) with questionable methods and countless strangely dated and patriarchal daydreams Loder has, picturing himself in an idyllic home with gorgeous women to stroke his ego. With a twist you can sniff from miles away, none of these distracting sidebars really add up to much, ultimately interrupting the main attraction we came to see — a MacLaine-Dinklage showcase. Perhaps that was the origin of Dektor’s cinematic dream. But in “American Dreamer,” it often feels broken.

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