If Appellate Judge Amanda DeWees got knocked on the head and woke up thinking she was a fictional sleuth, she'd like to be Tuppence Beresford.
Alan: Oh my god, someone really is trying to kill us!
1984 was a good year for escapism at the movies. There was Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, which led viewers to daydream about charging through jungles with a bullwhip, and Romancing the Stone, which taught us that the life of a novelist was packed with incidents every bit as thrilling as those found between the covers of books. And there was also American Dreamer, about a would-be writer who steps into the life of her favorite fictional character. The latter two films summed up for me everything that movies and books were about: the possibility that adventure could appear right plumb spang in the middle of the average Jane's life. Although American Dreamer isn't as effective as Romancing the Stone, its predecessor by half a year, it taps into some of the same powerful yearnings that all dreamers have to escape from their humdrum realities.
Facts of the Case
Life is pretty dull for repressed housewife and mother Cathy Palmer (JoBeth Williams, The Big Chill), so she finds solace in novels about the fictional sleuth Rebecca Ryan, whose exploits have all the glamour and excitement that Cathy's existence lacks. Then Cathy wins a trip to Paris in a Rebecca Ryan writing contest, and she's sure that in such romantic surroundings she and her stodgy husband Kevin (James Staley, Firefox) will rekindle their marriage. But Kevin dismisses Cathy's triumph and refuses to take time off from work, so she takes a bold step and goes to Paris alone. Scarcely has she arrived, however, when she's knocked down by a car and bumps her head. When she awakens in the hospital, she is convinced that she is Rebecca Ryan.
Mistaking the bewildered Alan McMann (Tom Conti, Shirley Valentine) for Rebecca's sidekick Dimitri, she sweeps him along as she charges off to an embassy ball, convinced there's skullduggery afoot. Her suspicions focus almost at once on suave politician Victor Marchand (Giancarlo Giannini, Hannibal), so she sets out to uncover his dastardly plot. Accompanied by the reluctant Alan, she begins shadowing him and tracing his movements. At first Alan thinks that the intrigue is all in "Rebecca's" head, but when a murder takes place, he begins to realize that they are both involved in real danger.
American Dreamer definitely owes a debt to screwball comedies, in which madcap heroines swept confused men out of their normal existence and into a whirlwind of liberating lunacy. However, since this was the 1980s, the liberation is for Cathy, not Alan; the screwball romance becomes a tale of feminist emancipation from stifling domesticity. Cathy's husband Kevin is practically a caricature of the condescending, repressive husband. When Cathy suggests that she take her Paris trip alone, he tells her, "It would be selfish, childish, and irresponsible of you to go—but I'm not going to tell you not to go." If Kevin seems too awful to be true, it's probably to help us enjoy Cathy's fling all the more and not concern ourselves with the real-life consequences (there are two kids in the picture, after all). The film isn't interested in his side of things or in whether their marriage can be saved. However, the story wisely gives Alan and Cathy some genuinely tender chemistry and some common interests even when she's not in Rebecca mode, so there is credibility to their romance; we do believe that Alan is a far better match for Cathy than Kevin.
The film also bears a lot of parallels with the wish-fulfillment fantasy of Romancing the Stone, with the glamour and romance of Paris substituting for the heat and danger of Colombia. I think one reason that Romancing the Stone was more successful, though, is that its adventure plot made sense, whereas in American Dreamer Cathy is motivated by a jumble of memories about characters from the Rebecca Ryan novels—memories that we viewers don't share. Like Alan, we are swept along in Cathy/Rebecca's wake without fully comprehending what she thinks she's doing. It's impossible for us to follow what passes for her thought processes, and although we aren't meant to, it does make it harder to invest in the madcap chases, clandestine meetings, murder attempts, and so on. Partly for this reason, Rebecca is never quite as impressive and irresistible as she believes herself to be; she's a little ridiculous, as when she gets drunk at the embassy ball, and that makes the story less satisfying to me than if she were genuinely splendid. It's great to see the self-abnegating Cathy acquire self-confidence, but it's a shame she isn't given a bit more justification for that confidence.
Despite the weaknesses in the story, there are also a number of clever touches. Since Rebecca Ryan is a famous personage in Paris, even though she's nonexistent, Cathy is able to coast in her new identity without meeting with many obstacles. One of my favorite parts is when the manager of a couture shop calls up Hotel Crillon, where the fictional Rebecca is known to stay, to confirm the identity of the woman who's charging so many expensive clothes. The hotel porter, a fan of mystery fiction, responds contemptuously, "Of course Rebecca Ryan lives here!" The start of the film is also clever, since it plunges us immediately into a Rebecca Ryan adventure before we realize that this isn't the film's reality: We're actually watching Cathy write (and rewrite) the scene at her typewriter, and the scene goes on to alternate amusingly between fiction and reality. The same scene later finds an echo in a pivotal point in the adventures of Cathy and Alan and brings about an important epiphany for Cathy, which is a skillful way of underscoring the tendency of fiction and reality to collide in her mind.
Even where the story is uneven, the actors attack it with energy. The reliable JoBeth Williams is enjoyable as both the mild-mannered Cathy and the bold, daring Rebecca, although in hindsight one winces at her character's fashion sense (those '80s couture outfits Rebecca dashes around in don't age well). She also brings effective poignancy to the bittersweet plot developments that occur late in the film. In fact, her work here makes me think that Williams would have been a charming choice for the Kate Capshaw role in Temple of Doom. Tom Conti is shaggily appealing in a role descended from that of Cary Grant in Bringing Up Baby, a fellow who just wants a normal life but finds it upended by this unpredictable, illogical, yet strangely appealing woman who has burst into his routine. Even partnered with the more dynamic Rebecca character, he more than holds his own, and his expert timing sells many a scene. Sadly, Giancarlo Giannini is playing a caricature here and isn't allowed to show the versatility some of his later roles would reveal. However, it is a pleasure to see Coral Browne (Vera Charles in Auntie Mame and the third Mrs. Vincent Price) as Alan's elegant mother. Her Margaret McMann is a strong, sophisticated woman in her own right, and without the benefit of amnesia; it's a shame she doesn't get more screen time.
Paramount gets jeers for packaging this film without a single extra—not even the trailer—and in substandard packaging: The photos and screen captures on the back cover are indistinct, and the plot synopsis gets a fundamental fact wrong. Audiovisual quality, however, is a pleasant surprise. The visual transfer varies between clarity and haziness depending on the scene, and some scenes betray the presence of grain, but there is also surprisingly little dirt or speckling, which is a definite plus. The new Dolby Digital 5.1 surround track is also quite respectable. The highs are sharp (sometimes almost too sharp), the sound is crisp, and balance is good overall: Only rarely does dialogue dip too far below the music. There is very little bass in the film, but one scene with a church organ shows that the audio track is more than up to rendering bass when it's present.
At the age of fifteen, I was held rapt by American Dreamer. It's been a charming memory during all the years since. Seeing it again after so long, I'm somewhat disappointed; the power it once had for me seems to have resided more in its premise than in its execution. At the same time, it's a mostly harmless escapist entertainment, and the performances and the Paris locations go a long way toward making it enjoyable even when it's at its silliest. The bottom line is that it's a film for dreamers—none others need apply.
Not guilty, but the impetuous Miss Ryan really ought to consult with the police before pursuing a potentially dangerous suspect. The defendants at Paramount are reminded that they are already on probation for barebones disc treatments; if they don't shape up soon, I'll have to throw the book at them.
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