‘American Dreamer’ Movie Review: Shirley MacLaine Steals the Show

Shirley MacLaine and Peter Dinklage star in ‘American Dreamer’, an unconventional comedy with understated jokes and sudden plot twists that keep you on your toes. Courtesy of Vertical Entertainment

It’s always a treat to welcome the fiery, versatile and almost always surprising Shirley MacLaine back to the screen, although now, in happy retirement at age 89, the roles are smaller and she seems less ubiquitous than she used to. Still, there’s no one like her and she always makes a unique and memorable impression in every role, regardless of size. She no longer counts the number of lines to determine the importance of a film. She just hits her mark, the camera rolls, and she steals the show. 

AMERICAN DREAMER ★★(3/4 stars)
Directed by: Paul Dektor
Written by: Theodore Melfi
Starring: Shirley MacLaine, Peter Dinklage, Matt Dillon, Danny Glover
Running time: 98 mins.

In American Dreamer, the trademark red hair is a wig that covers the snowy silver of impending age, in the role of a cantankerous old lady who falls in love with a dwarf.  In today’s ridiculously woke environs, it’s annoying to keep up with the politically acceptable terms for the human condition, but both “dwarf” and “one of the Little People” are allowable, even though both terms seem woefully inadequate when the Little Person in question is the doubly talented Peter Dinklage, whose size may have limited his work possibilities but he’s had remarkable luck at avoiding cliches. This is as it should be, because he’s a fine actor worthy of important roles of dignity and stature.

In American Dreamer, Dinklage essays one of his best as Dr. Philip Loder—adopted as a child by Mormon missionaries, disowned by the faith for having sex with one of the elders, now graduated to the level of struggling, underpaid teacher working as an adjunct professor in a small Massachusetts college. The one thing he dreams of owning is a home of his own, so he devotes most of his time to answering real estate ads. When at last he finds one he can afford, it is owned by a cynical, sarcastic old eccentric in a wheelchair named Astrid Fanelli, who offers the mansion for an absurdly low price, with the provision that the buyer remains in a guest section of the house until she dies. Miraculously, his dream begins. So does his nightmare.  

After depleting his finances, the old lady’s adopted daughter, a probate attorney, initiates a plan to cancel his contract. In the ensuing legal and social chaos, the accident-prone Astrid falls on her head. Dead for 12 minutes, she sees Jesus. He sounds like Jimmy Stewart but looks like the pop singer Prince. Dr. Loder suddenly finds himself in charge of his landlady’s recovery, but by the time she miraculously recovers, they fall in love. Not all of it is plausible, but it’s continually agreeable and full of surprises. Directed by Paul Dektor from a disarmingly offbeat screenplay by Theodore Melfi, American Dreamer is fresh, original, unpredictable and unexpectedly funny. The laughs are organic, so it’s not a conventional comedy, but the understated jokes and sudden plot twists will keep you on your toes. Dinklage and MacLaine are a perfect pair of co-stars, playing off each other and never using their screen time as anything less than generous. Matt Dillon and Danny Glover contribute offbeat and understated support. There are rare moments when MacLaine looks like the old Shirley, but mostly she does what’s right for the role and fits beautifully and unobtrusively into the fabric of the film without a wrinkle. Correction: there are many wrinkles in American Dreamer, but the wrinkles are all her own.

‘American Dreamer’ Review: Shirley MacLaine and Peter Dinklage Are a Perfect Pair

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