Whenever a comedian takes on a dramatic role, critics and audiences alike react one of two ways: they either reject the performance outright for being anything but what the comic is famous for being, or they celebrate it like they’ve just seen a bear doing a card trick. Bill Murray’s turn in The Razor’s Edge? Rejected. Jim Carrey’s performance in The Truman Show? Bear doing a card trick. Comedians are so boxed in to being funny that we either won’t let them out of the box or we fall all over ourselves when they demonstrate the ability to do more than one thing.
Comedian Jim Gaffigan has had dramatic roles before, as recently as Chappaquiddick earlier this year. But he’s never had a dramatic role as substantial or as unbelievably dark as in American Dreamer, the latest film from director Derrick Borte (The Joneses), making its world premiere at this year’s Los Angeles Film Festival. Gaffigan sheds his family man image to play Cam, a guy who’s recently laid off, recently divorced, and falling way behind on his child support payments. He’s working as a ride share driver to barely make ends meet, and one day picks up Mazz (Robbie Jones), a drug dealer who starts using Cam to drive him around while he does business. Desperate for money, Cam hatches a plan to kidnap the dealer’s infant son. Things do not go as planned.
There’s always been a “sad sack” quality to Jim Gaffigan’s comedy; his persona is that of a guy who has accepted his fate as put-upon father and husband and who has to find pleasure in the little things, usually food. His performance in American Dreamer is sort of a logical extension of his comic persona, only things have gone very bad for him. Instead of being stuck in the blandness of the suburbs, Cam is part of a world that is dangerous and dark, only he’s just a little too clueless to realize that he’s in way over his head. Most of us are quite familiar with the “inept criminal” genre—the Coen Brothers alone have made it part of their stock in trade—and it’s a genre to which American Dreamer clearly belongs. It’s a perfectly solid take on the territory, too, but by the time the credits roll hasn’t offered much that hasn’t been seen before.
Gaffigan is very good at the movie’s center, getting to the heart of the anger and frustration (misplaced as some of it may be) that leads to his steadily mounting desperation. This is a huge benefit, as American Dreamer succeeds or fails on the basis of his performance. Equally good is Robbie Jones, who is charismatic enough that we understand how he rose to such a place of power, but also intimidating and downright scary. Had the movie focused a bit more on the relationship between the two men, it might have been able to carve out a new space for itself. Instead, it spends most of its running time devoted to the plot, putting Cam in one bad situation after another. Borte knows how to create near-unbearable tension, usually resolving it with little more than dumb luck. That makes sense—Cam certainly isn’t going to think his way out of each new problem, even though he thinks he can—but after a while it deflates the tension the film has built up so well. We don’t have to worry about how Cam will get out of a jam because we know something will come along to let him off the hook.
The title American Dreamer is obviously meant to be ironic, but I’m not entirely sure to what end. Yes, the pursuit of money is at the root of all the film’s evil—a common criticism of our corrupted American Dream—but Cam’s financial troubles are brought about by his own undoing. There’s enough that’s broken in the country right now that the plight Cam is trying to buy his way out of could easily be the result of a government failing him. I’m not suggesting it would make for a better movie, only that it might make the satire inherent in the movie’s title land a bit better.
American Dreamer isn’t a pleasant experience. It’s not meant to be. It’s a portrait of a desperate man unraveling until only the desperation remains. Jim Gaffigan is uncomfortable in every scene, even before things really go south, and being trapped on this descent makes us uncomfortable, too. The movie covers familiar ground, but it does so effectively. It paints Jim Gaffigan in a new light, too, and will hopefully lead to even more dramatic work for the comic. He’s very good. He’s a bear doing a card trick.
Movie Score: 3/5