‘American Dreamer’ Review: Peter Dinklage And Shirley MacLaine At Their Best In This Very Black Human Comedy

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American Dreamer deserves better than it has gotten. Shot three years ago during the pandemic this delirously black comedy premiered at Tribeca 2022 and got lost in the crowd. The filmmakers including first time feature director Paul Dektor and screenwriter/producer Theodore Melfi (Hidden Figures, St. Vincent) decided to then hold it back and recut and tighten it eliminating 10 minutes of the original running time. In early 2023 it turned up at the Santa Barbara Film Festival, still largely ignored, and then its distribution hunt was further delayed by the Hollywood strikes. Finally Vertical has wisely picked it up and it will be opening in theatres and VOD Friday.

I saw the Tribeca cut and I have seen the final cut. Both worked for me but it was great to experience it a second time in an actual theatre with a very appreciative audience. Comedies work best that way and this one is slyly dark and smartly acted by a superlative cast led by Peter Dinklage and Shirley MacLaine. Dinklage is in his sweet zone here playing Phil Loder, a fairly unlikeable and messed up economics professor, twice divorced, working for $50,000 a year and miserable until the dream of a lifetime comes his way. Answering an ad in the paper he responds to what seems an inconceivable chance to own a massive mansion right on the shoreline. The deal is $5 million OR an incredible deal several times less than that. It will cost him – all in- about $240,000 or so which he will have to scrape together within an inch of his life. The only catch is that he will have to live in the small attached apartment and allow the home’s eccentric childless owner, 90ish Astrid Finnelli (MacLaine) to remain there until the end of her life. His slippery friend and real estate broker friend Dell (Matt Dillon), who he often tags along with to open houses, convinces him she looks like near-death already so this should be a no-brainer. Uh, not so fast.

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Soon, after moving in and actually meeting her, he discovers she is spry as a 60 year old, appearing far from death’s door, and has a huge family including daughter Maggie (Kim Quinn) who is also a lawyer. Once Maggie gets wind of the deal made by her mother she starts to squash it, threatening legal action and saying Astrid is in early stages of dimentia and not capable of making this contract legal. As his world starts to fall down around him, Phil realizes he is about to lose his entire investment which was scraped together with everything he owned. He also has a nervous breakdown in front of his college class, and the novel he is writing is not going so well as he can’t get out of his own head. He had visions of a luxury life that has now turned into a nightmare, even as the guy continually hops into bed with different women, including none other than Maggie (!) despite being at odds with her.

Yes, this movie is out there, folks but it is consistently and wryly funny, powered by Dinklage who shows no vanity in making Phil quite a human disaster as nothing seems to be going right, except oddly his budding relationship with Astrid the woman he thought he wanted dead. Dinklage shows us a guy who thought he had the answer to his own happiness in material things, but soon learns otherwise. MacLaine has her best role in some time (Melfi wrote it with both her and Dinklage in mind) and she runs with it, also not afraid to show aging and all its faults (she turns 90 in April), even in a remarkable scene where she tosses off her red wig after nearly drowning and being rescued by Phil who has become some sort of spiritual savior. Their moments together are gold and after nearly 70 years in front of the camera MacLaine proves she still has got it. Also stealing scenes is Danny Glover as a crafty old private eye, and a very amusing Dillon having fun playing the smooth real estate agent. Quinn, a producer here and married to Melfi, is perfect as the daughter who becomes Phil’s main nemesis.

The whole film actually has the feel of a vintage Hal Ashby movie, offbeat, dark, but wickedly funny and full of human foilbles. Dinklage sometimes goes for broader slapstick, but Dektor never loses hold of the delicate tone here, no easy task. Believe it or not it was inspired by a true story – sort of. The idea came from an episode of NPR’s This American Life about a woman who gets a mansion for almost nothing by only agreeing to let the seller live there until he dies. In real life the man lived another 15 years and they became close like family after she even got married and had kids. Melfi was able to come up with his own take on the premise and develop the story with Chris Wehner.

Producers are Melfi, Dektor, Dinklage, Quinn, David Ginsberg, and Toyo Shimano.

Title: American Dreamer

Distributor: Vertical

Release Date: March 8, 2024 (limited and on VOD)

Director: Paul Dektor

Screenplay: Theodore Melfi

Cast: Peter Dinklage, Shirley MacLaine, Kim Quinn, Danny Glover, Matt Dillon, Danny Pudi, Michelle Mylett

Rating: NR

Running Time: 1 hour and 38 minutes

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