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American Dreamer Review: Dinklage Wasted

Peter Dinklage in the film American Dreamer

Paul Dektor’s dry comedy on a professor’s housing market struggles, American Dreamer, wastes a great curmudgeon in Peter Dinklage.

Peter Dinklage is one of the finest actors within this current generation of actors. He brings gravitas and personality to every single project he is involved in regardless of its quality. His turn in American Dreamer, as a bristled professor struggling to navigate the housing market, is almost enough to save the film, because Ted Melfi’s script feels written by a screenwriter who has never interacted with human beings before. In American Dreamer, Paul Dektor adapts a segment of podcast “This American Life,” which takes creative liberties by switching the gender of the protagonist in the original story told on that show.

12 years ago, economics professor Phil Loder (Peter Dinklage) lost his wife. Having been stuck in a tailspin during that time, and renting a property, he is desperate to find a house he can call his own. That is, after all, the American dream: buy a house, buy a car, and everything should fall into place. Phil only has $200,000 saved however. This isn’t enough for his own house, or any of the houses his dolt broker Dell (Matt Dillon) offers him. When a house comes available, where the purchase of a section grants that person the entire house once the infirm occupant passes away, Phil snatches the opportunity. 

He moves into the house but soon finds himself at loggerheads with the ailing Astrid (Shirley MacLaine), before American Dreamer forgets it’s been trying to be critical of the American dream and the housing market. It turns into a semi-slapstick melodrama where Dinklage’s curmudgeon professor gets to sleep with his students (misjudged, and awkwardly overwritten as to avoid the criticisms around the power dynamic of a professor sleeping with his student) and other women who seemingly throw themselves at him for the simplest of intellectual jargon spouted by Phil. 

Peter Dinklage and Shirley MacLaine in the film American Dreamer
Peter Dinklage and Shirley MacLaine in the film American Dreamer (Vertical)

There is a clear identity crisis with American Dreamer. It has elements of critical thinking on the American dream, such as how $200k doesn’t allow someone a house. But it’s an odd film that wants to be funnier than it clearly is, whose hallucinogenic phantom turn feels try-hard and the distinctive lack of bite on the topics it discusses make the film’s take on housing and the infirm a sword that has been sheathed. It is not helped by a screenplay littered with subplots that don’t correlate, such as Dell’s brokering, Craig (a hammy Danny Pudi) – Phil’s petty boss who wants him to read his article – an a private investigator played by Danny Glover who sets out to search for Maggie Pennington, a lawyer and a child of Astrid. Maggie becomes a catalyst in changing the dynamic of the film and Phil’s relationship and legal contract with Astrid. 

Dinklage plays the curdled failure of a protagonist well, and his presence in the film means it has at least some personality but he’s unable to save the film from a script that is unsubtle and dull. Even the infrequent fragments of chemistry that eventually occur between Phil and Astrid feel inauthentic and manufactured by a script that places characters within peculiar positions. McLain’s Astrid is also oddly buoyant, which is commented on by Phil during a rant of desperation, but it is barely touched on.

American Dreamer has occasional wit, and Dinklage is as great as expected even when the film is jumping through hoops to accept his behaviour, but that the film thinks its last rug-pull is clever when it would have been solved easily had any character spoken to each other is testament to how silly and scattered the movie is. That its drama is bland and humour is coarsely written is just another contributing factor in driving the price of American Dreamer down.

Get it on Apple TV

American Dreamer will be released in select US theaters and on demand on March 8, 2024. Read our reviews of Peter Dinklage movies Cyrano, She Came to Me, and The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes.

American Dreamer: Trailer (Vertical)

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