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American Dreamer (2018)

Boulevard of Broken Dreams

Last week, a colleague told me about his long weekend spent judging short films for a small festival. His two biggest gripes: a surprising dearth of quality actors on the indie scene and, odder still, too many movies centered around rideshare culture. Not that there's anything inherently wrong with Uber, Lyft, and the myriad other disruptors of the taxicab model--it's just disheartening to see fad filmaking clogging up what is supposed to be a broad creative landscape. Granted, I wasn't a judge in this particular competition, but I know this phenomenon isn't exclusive to the micro-budget crowd.

Remember Stuber?

No penalties if you don't.

There are exceptions to every rule, though, and an extinguisher for every outrage. In this case, it's Derrick Borte's 2018 thriller, American Dreamer. Jim Gaffigan stars as Cam, a down-on-his-luck driver for the fictitious service HAIL. Early scenes establish him as haggard, unshaven, and max-cringe awkward with his fares--many of whom are so zeroed in on their phones or fellow travelers that they might as well have hopped into a self-driving car. Our sympathy for Cam at the outset is partially a trick of Borte and co-writer Daniel Forte's sly doling out of information about him, and partially the positive psychic baggage that audiences will bring to the film.

Jim Gaffigan is a beloved "clean" stand-up comic. He's the "Hot Pockets guy". The affable dad in a big Catholic family who loves talking about food almost as much as he loves eating it. And it is for this reason that his casting in American Dreamer works so well. By the time we learn that Cam has anger-management issues and a contentious relationship with his ex-wife and child (largely, we suspect, due to said issues), we're already on his side. A few hard tugs at the rug of our expectations go far in throwing the movie off kilter early on, so that we're never sure how Cam will deal with adversity that he hasn't brought on himself.

Enter Mazz (Robbie Jones), a razor-sharp and ruthless young drug dealer who hires Cam to drive him around for the night. Cam's first taste of his client's true character is watching him pistol-whip an underling from across the street. Mazz then asks to be driven home, where his loving wife and toddler await. In an instant, Cam sees an opportunity to skim some fat off the roll of hundreds in his passenger's jeans, and from here American Dreamer becomes a twisted cautionary tale of bad decisions and irrevocably disastrous consequences.

You may know what I'm getting at, but this is one of those movies where letting out more than an inch of narrative thread can unfurl the whole plot--and I wouldn't deprive you of that. Borte and Forte dispense psychic cruelty the way mid-2000s torture porn reveled in gore gags and screams for mercy. Whether a product of desperation or an innate lack of common sense, Cam's gift for screwing up plans and failing to rebound from their effects propels the story forward. Turn the story five degrees to the right, and you have the makings of a Zach Galifianakis farce, but Gaffigan plays it straight as an arrow here (albeit a weathered and warped one).

Though we're with Cam throughout most of the film, we catch the characters in his orbit alone every once in awhile; it's a fun exercise to step outside this movie and wonder what it must be like to live in their subjective realities. To us, the hapless HAIL driver is a fascination, a man whom we desperately want to like for half the movie, and whom we hope will find either help or justice in the other half. For Mazz, his stripper wife, Marina (Isabel Arraiza), and his shady associate, Gumby (Alejandro Hernandez), Cam might as well be a rideshare Punisher, tearing apart their family, jeopardizing their business, and exposing their secrets in a series of nightmare scenarios that, from their points of view, must appear deliberate on an Act of God scale.

The joke, of course, is that Cam is not a criminal mastermind. His curse/mutant power is a profound ineptitude that uproots any moderately shaky foundation in its path. I'm reminded of those taxicab companies, and of the real-life Cams whose spiritually malnourished middle-class lives are marked by repetition, disappointment, and unrealized potential (or an unjustly inflated sense of same). These forgotten, misshapen men who subsist on food substitutes for which crisping sleeves were invented are just as self-destructive as the gangbangers they see fleetingly on the news. Indeed, American Dreamer's sticky closing moments are truly its darkest. They're sure to spark some lively conversations about whose dreams matter most, and in which America they count.

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