Few actors are as effective conveying misanthropy as Peter Dinklage. With his arch line readings and endlessly expressive face, the actor excels at portraying damaged souls possessing an underlying vulnerability. It’s what makes him so perfect for the starring role in the new film scripted by Theodore Melfi (Hidden Figures) in which he plays an embittered economic professor desperately searching for happiness but failing miserably at every turn. American Dreamer, recently showcased as the opening night film of the Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival, is the sort of acerbic black comedy that feels like a throwback to the more cinematically daring 1970s era.
Dinklage plays Philip Loder, an economics professor at a New England university whose lectures mainly consist of angry screeds about social inequality. Philip relates to the subject personally, since he only earns $50,000 a year and doesn’t have the tenure that would ensure job security. In his spare time, he works on a novel but mostly dreams about the sort of fancy real estate that he’s in no position to remotely afford. He attends open house showings of luxurious homes hosted by his real estate broker friend Dell (an amusingly droll Matt Dillon) who puts up with Philip’s presence even though he enjoys scaring off potential buyers.
Philip, who also engages in a rich fantasy life involving the romantic attentions of two gorgeous young women who dote on him, thinks that his dream of owning a luxurious home might come to fruition when he becomes aware of a deal that seems too good to be true. It involves a palatial waterfront mansion being sold for “$5 million as is, or $240,00 with live-in.” It’s owned by the elderly, childless widow Astrid Finnelli (Shirley MacLaine), who will sell at the lower price under the condition that she’s allowed to remain in the house for the rest of her life.
Assured by Dell that he shouldn’t have to wait long to take sole possession since the wheelchair-bound Astrid is “actively dying,” Philip cashes in all his savings and sells all of his possessions to raise the necessary funds and moves into the house’s decrepit servants’ quarters. Much to his chagrin, he soon discovers that Astrid, rather than being at death’s door, is a spry senior who seems the picture of health. And that she has actually several adult children, including Maggie (Kimberly Quinn), an attorney who makes it very clear that she has no intention of letting Philip get away with the deal.
The film, loosely based on a true-life segment of the radio show This American Life, has a distinct Harold and Maude black-comedy vibe in its depiction of the relationship between Astrid and Philip. It starts out frosty but eventually develops into a warm friendship and even love after he winds up saving her life on more than one occasion, despite the fact that letting her die would be in his own self-interest.
Meanwhile, Philip, who seems to be irresistible to women, finds himself repeatedly falling into bed — first with a 30-year-old graduate student (Michelle Mylett) in a casual relationship that threatens to destroy his career after she informs Philip’s department head (Danny Pudi, Community), and then with Maggie despite their previous animosity.
Director Paul Dektor, making his feature debut, doesn’t prove fully successful in navigating the story’s abrupt tonal shifts and inconsistencies, which include several of the characters seeming to change their personalities at the drop of a hat. The film juggles a few too many elements, including a subplot involving an easily shocked private detective (wonderfully played by Danny Glover), and overindulges in slapstick humor as the endlessly unlucky Philip suffers numerous injuries as a result of mishaps with, among other things, a scalding shower and window air-conditioner.
But it also has many hilarious moments thanks to Melfi’s witty screenplay featuring a plethora of very funny one-liners especially delivered to perfection by the two stars. The effortlessly charismatic Dinklage makes you root for his character despite his many flaws and hangdog demeanor, while MacLaine, still a force of nature at age 88, displays crack comic timing honed by 67 years (!) of big-screen experience. They’re a joy to watch in a film that doesn’t fully live up to its considerable thematic ambitions but offers substantial pleasures along the way.
Venue: Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival
Cast: Peter Dinklage, Shirley MacLaine, Matt Dillon, Danny Glover, Kimberly Quinn, Danny Pudi, Michelle Mylett
Director: Paul Dektor
Screenwriter: Theodore Melfi
Producers: Paul Dektor, Theodore Melfi, Peter Dinklage, Kimberly Quinn, David Ginsberg, Toyo Shimano
Executive producer: Kevin Root
Director of photography: Nicolas Bolduc
Production designer: Eric Fraser
Editor: Lisa Robison
Composer: Jeff Russo
Costume designer: Jori Woodman
1 hour 46 minutes