American Dreamer Review: Peter Dinklage Sabotages Himself In A Dour Comedy-Drama [Tribeca]

In "American Dreamer," Dr. Phil Loder (Peter Dinklage) is a long-suffering adjunct professor at Harvard who heads to work in the same shabby car, hangs up his hat in the same shabby closet space of an office, and gets a sad ham sandwich from the same shabby vending machine every day. After a day of lecturing about the economy to uninterested students, he heads to his shabby studio apartment and feeds his neighbor's cats, before sitting down to browse Zillow for houses he can't afford and picking away at his semi-autobiographical novella. Occasionally, his real estate agent friend Dell (an eerily smiley Matt Dillon) will invite him to a viewing of a million-dollar dream house that Phil will sabotage with rants about the state of the economy.

But amid all his grousing and self-loathing, Phil is a dreamer: he dreams of four walls and a house to call his own, the so-called American Dream that he speaks of so passionately, losing the veil of irony with which he treats the rest of his life. And, miraculously, it seems like he's got a chance at that dream when he spots an advertisement in the Classifieds for a beautiful — and affordable — manor with one condition: he has to live in the house with the aging wheelchair-bound owner (Shirley MacLaine, whose entire direction in this movie might just have been "quirky"), limited to the upper level until she passes. But, naturally, this win-win situation isn't what it's cracked up to be.

Based on the "true story" of a segment from the podcast "This American Life," "American Dreamer" is a dour dramedy that has trouble balancing the perspective of its nihilist protagonist within its cutesy narrative. The result is a tonally confused comedy-drama that slowly forgets to keep up the comedy, despite the great efforts (and many a slapstick moment) from its infinitely charismatic star Peter Dinklage.

A house is not a home

Peter Dinklage plays a great misanthrope. That much is true — he's got the perfect face for it, so expressive and capable of conveying every tortured emotion his character goes through. And Phil is quite the misanthrope, a perpetually unhappy cynic who goes through life as if the world has it out for him. In some ways, it does; we learn through pained interactions with Phil's "friends," along with the interstitial glimpses of his ongoing novella, that he was an orphan who bounced from foster home to foster home. That's why he's always longed to own a home of his own — even if this pipe dream has earned him the mockery of Dell who, despite his skepticism of Phil being able to afford to buy a house, helps him with the deal that lands Phil the house of his dreams. With Dinklage's incredible skill as a performer, it should be easy to sympathize with Phil, especially as this perfect deal falls apart, right?

The problem is, Phil is also an idiot. You'd think, as a professor of economics at Harvard, he would think through this harebrained contract that leaves him living in an upstairs apartment of a grand house, waiting for the house's owner to die. But it's only when he moves in and realizes that the owner, Astrid, is not as decrepit as he was lead to believe, nor as alone in the world. She in fact is hale and healthy, bustling around the house with a wine glass in hand, or around the perfectly manicured yard with shears in hand. And she's frequently visited by an army of her kids, one of which is a beautiful lawyer (Kimberly Quinn) who is immediately contentious with Phil. It's clear that Phil has been scammed or misled in some way, and he reacts in the worst manner possible: by sneaking around Astrid's house and hiring a private investigator, getting in all kinds of scrapes (with more broken glass and more cringey sexual exploits than you'd expect a normal person to encounter) that lead to him getting increasingly injured and disillusioned.

It's an outlandish premise that only gets goofier as the film goes on, which becomes a problem, because the tone of "American Dreamer" doesn't get any less dour. In fact, it seems to adopt Phil's whole cynical worldview, which makes the film more tiresome to watch as it goes on. Which is a shame, because there are moments of bright wit and sparkling humor that hint at a better movie hidden within here — one that knows how to better utilize Dinklage's talents, and one that has a less hilariously simplistic view of women — if only the script by Theodore Melfi ("Hidden Figures") could've been punched up a little. And director Paul Dektor, making his feature directorial debut, seems lost with the film, occasionally throwing in stylistic touches that feel distinctive enough to live up to the film's "dark comedy" label — a weird fantasy here, a solid understanding of color palette to reflect mood there — but it all becomes a bit muddled and broad.

Dinklage and Dillon are fun to watch, especially when they're onscreen together, and there is the fun occasional appearance by Danny Pudi as Phil's coworker, but the central relationship between Dinklage's Phil and MacLaine's Astrid feels half-baked. Dinklage does his best, and for the first hour of the film, almost makes "American Dreamer" seem worth the heartache and cringe comedy. But "American Dreamer" seems unwilling to embrace the sentimentality that its title suggests, instead couching itself in an irony that keeps the audience at arm's distance.

/Film Rating: 5 out of 10