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If you’ve been dying to know what a gritty Jim Gaffigan performance looks like, American Dreamer has your answer. It’s the only real trick up the film’s sleeve, and it’s moderately successful. The rest of American Dreamer, not so much. This is a by-the-books crime movie about a nebbish guy who gets himself into trouble he can’t navigate. The title implies a movie with a bit more ambition, and it flirts with some interesting moments, but ultimately, American Dreamer is frustratingly basic. The normally affable, unassuming Gaffigan gives an impressive dramatic turn, but the rest of the performances are just fine, without the curiosity factor of Gaffigan.
DIRECTOR: Derrick Borte
A ride-hail driver with serious financial problems concocts a plan to steal money from the drug dealer he drives around, with life changing results.
American Driver is about a man hitting his nadir after life knocks him down a few pegs. That man is Cam (Gaffigan), and he’s not dealing with adversity well. Cam drives for the aptly titled ride-hailing service HAIL, and he is disheveled, stressed, and looks like he’s about to snap when we meet him. It’s immediately clear that Cam is driving not because he wants some extra cash, but because it’s his only option. Plenty of people drive for ride-hailing companies, and some hide how much they need the money better than others. The desperation on Cam’s face basically functions as a uniform. There’s an early moment where Cam argues with a gas station attendant through the speaker at the pump that drives home how far he’s fallen. Cam is pathetic, and Gaffigan plays it well.
This embarrassing moment is just a precursor to the moral reckoning coming for Cam. The script, credited to Derrick Borte (who also directs) and Daniel Forte, doles out exposition sparingly. We are left to piece together Cam’s backstory, which includes the typical tribulations of life: a lost job and a ruined marriage. Cam’s self-sabotaging behavior doesn’t help, and now he’s trying to cover child support and alimony payments with his fares. It’s unclear whether the script intends to blame the corporate world’s callous indifference or Cam’s own inability to hold himself accountable. The former is an easy target; the latter is more prickly and compelling. In the end, neither thread amounts to anything.
When Cam isn’t hustling fares around town, he’s driving a low-level drug dealer, Mazz (Robbie Jones), back and forth. Mazz is wildly paranoid and assumes everyone is working to bring him down. Mazz is right, of course, but that’s his fault because of his chosen profession and the people with whom he surrounds himself. There’s an interesting dichotomy between Cam and Mazz. If we’re taking the title seriously, we can see both men struggling to live their version of the American Dream. But dreams are fleeting, and so is American Dreamer’s desire to interrogate itself. The real theme of the movie is men failing to take responsibility for their actions. The combustible mix of Mazz’s paranoia and Cam’s desperation comes to a head when Cam kidnaps Mazz’s son with the intent of collecting ransom money. This terrible plan goes even worse than Cam could’ve anticipated.
American Dreamer is propulsive enough to keep viewers from getting bored. That’s the key to film. It doesn’t carry much weight narratively, but it moves fast and lets viewers deal with the consequences later. Even as it’s playing out, it’s clear that most of the film’s logic is held together by tenuous threads. The film is at its best when it leans into its genre tropes and inherent nastiness. Mazz’s world is full of drugs, power-hungry underlings, and questionable loyalty. Mazz is barely cut out for that life, and Cam has no chance to survive in it. If there is anything I respect about American Dreamer, it’s the film’s willingness to go to some truly dark places. I won’t reveal them here, because they provide the film’s few surprises.
I’m a sucker for this kind of movie. With its single-day timeline, backfiring schemes, serious performance from a comic actor, and crime movie tropes, it’s catnip to me. American Dreamer is like grabbing a bowl of cereal for a snack. It’s tasty in the moment, but you know you’re not getting anything of substance. Sometimes that’s fine. Sure, you might wish you were eating something better, but Cinnamon Toast Crunch gets the job done. The intrigue of Gaffigan’s presence roped me in, but I wouldn’t recommend it just on that. You can get all you need by looking at the poster. This one is strictly for less discerning crime movie fans.
Eddie Strait is a member of the Austin Film Critic Association. His reviews focus primarily on streaming entertainment, with an emphasis on Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, and other on-demand services.