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I Think I Might be a Placebo

There are spoilers for the film American Dreamz ahead. Stop reading if you don’t want to read about the ending.

I noticed a line in American Dreamz that I like a lot. It is durring a conversation between the US President (played by Dennis Quaid) and his Wife (Marcia Gay Harden). He tells her that he has stopped taking his anti-depression medication, and she replies that she stopped taking it too, because she thought it might have been a placebo. He doesn’t know what a placebo is, so she inaccurately defines it as meaning “fake”. On hearing this, he says that he thinks that he might be a placebo.

There are many things I like about this line. The line makes much more sense if we understand placebo to have its normal meaning (rather than “fake”, he clearly isn’t “fake” he is the elected president for the purposes of the film). I like that he is able to express what he means to his wife, because she knows (or believes) that he believes placebo to mean precisely fake, and that this allows her to avoid confronting the deeper second meaning of his statement (I could quote George W Bush here, but I won’t).

Later on, during the final scene, there are two places where this vision of Quaid as a placebo are realised. First, finally free from his advisor feeding him lines through an ear piece, he says that he belives the problems in the middle east can never be solved. This momentarily seems to break the spell of the Placebo, but prompts one of the other characters to say that he hopes that Quaid is wrong. Quaid says he hopes he is too, restoring enough of the illusion for Grant’s character to manage to summon enough strength out of the depression to transition to commercials.

Second, he tries to order Chris Klein’s character (with the Catch-22 style name William Williams) to remove his suicide bomb vest. The film presents it as a build up to the cheesy hollywood style ending, but instead Klein point blank, and starkly rationally, refuses. Whilst giving the order, Quaid says that he now thinks it is better to deal with reality as it is, and immediately finds that he is almost powerless to even affect, let alone improve the situation.

The other part of the film I like is the very end, where they refuse to acknowledge directly that Grant’s character is dead. Although rationally we might assume that a bomb designed for assasinating the president should have killed Grant when they where so close, we are unable to seperate the idea of him not presenting the show from the idea of him being dead. The film won’t seperate the two, and almost seems to criticise the idea that we might want to know; that we do not have any ownership of Grant’s character beyond the role he fufils in his job as a TV presenter, and his purpose in the film, nor should we expect to have any.

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