The Fine Print — American Dreamer

William J Hammon
7 min readMar 12, 2024


There’s a rich vein of content that can be derived from the harsh realities of our economic system. The stereotype of the “American Dream” feels ever more unattainable in the 21st Century as prices go up, the wealth gap widens, and government forces are easily bribed into taking no action. My late mother and I are prime examples of this. Her version of the “Dream,” as I’ve mentioned before, was to have her kids get a better education than she did and own her own home. She got the former and made strides to the latter, but ultimately she died penniless, and her mortgage was so far underwater (and the house in such disrepair due to unaffordable upkeep costs) that it will be foreclosed by the banks in due course.

As for me, I don’t even hold the illusion that I’ll ever own property. I live in a city where simple ranch homes sell for over a million dollars on the low end, and “luxury” apartments that run $3,000-$5,000 a month price anyone wishing to live by themselves completely out of the market. I’m in my 40s and have roommates. In most of the rest of this country, that’s a societal embarrassment. In Los Angeles, it’s essentially a requirement. Even married couples basically exist to share a rent payment that no one can afford on their own. Every day I wake up to construction noise, as my next door neighbor, an old woman who was grouchy about her trash cans but otherwise quite nice, died last year, and her small, two-bedroom house was quickly bought by a developer just so it could be torn down and replaced with another apartment building that will charge exorbitant rents. There’s a reason there are nearly 200,000 homeless people in California, and it’s not drugs or laziness. It’s because we as a society refuse to change the economic paradigm and admit that the basic human need of shelter should not be a profit motive.

I went over all of this when I named American Dreamer as my “Redemption Reel” in the March edition of TFINYW. Now that I’ve finally seen the movie, I can say it did deliver on that point, as well as the potential of the two lead actors’ performances. Beyond that, however, the film is unfocused, going off on several unnecessary tangents without proper execution when it could have just stayed put on the relevant socioeconomic commentary.

Peter Dinklage, perhaps the best actor of his generation when it comes to playing misanthropes, stars as Phil Loder, an adjunct professor of economics at a New England university (the film was actually shot in Vancouver and uses British Columbian Parliament buildings as stand-ins for the college), who can barely make ends meet despite his position. He lives in a one-bedroom apartment, eats sandwiches out of vending machines, and is forced to park his very old car next to a dumpster both at home and at work. In spite of the fact that he’s got a doctorate and a stable academic career, this is all he can afford.

His disillusion is furthered by his realtor, Dell (Matt Dillon), who invites him to open house tours despite the properties being well out of Phil’s price range, mostly to rub it in his face. All the man wants is four walls to call his own and a decent view for him to look out of while he writes a novel. Is that too much to ask? In this country, very much yes.

One day, however, Phil comes across a classified listing for a coastal property that looks too good to be true. He can either buy it outright for $5,000,000 or pay $250,000 in cash for a studio apartment inside the house, with the caveat that he would inherit the entire estate once the owner, Astrid (Shirley MacLaine) passes on. Both Phil and Dell are suspicious, but everything appears to be above board. Astrid is a widow in failing health and has no children, so there’d be no contested will. There are strict rules about access to different parts of the house and property, and Phil is warned that any repairs will be at his expense and in cash, but otherwise all seems fine. Phil sells literally everything he owns — including converting his old car into a tiny motor scooter — to make the payment.

Things go well enough at first, despite a few hiccups with the shower and a woodpecker, which leads to some decent physical comedy, and while Astrid is a bit curt, the two get along fine by leaving one another alone. This is definitely not an Odd Couple scenario. When Astrid calls in a plumber named Boris (Raresh DiMofte) to fix the pipes, she introduces him to Phil as “one of my kids.” This worries Phil a great deal, especially when he meets Maggie (Kim Quinn), another of Astrid’s kids and a probate lawyer who threatens to evict him for taking advantage of a dying woman.

All of this leads to a comedy of errors where Phil enlists Dell and a private investigator named Jerry (Danny Glover) to figure out what Astrid’s real situation is, while also dodging a self-important dean (Danny Pudi) and a student with a crush (Michelle Mylett). Phil has gambled everything on the chance at the stability of a home, and even after a lifetime of playing by the rules, the unforeseen forces of chance and stupidity may rob him of all of it.

When the commentary keeps laser focused on the economic disparities at play, this is fantastic. Dinklage plays Phil about as perfectly as one can play a middle-aged curmudgeon, and there are subtle hints of satire peppered throughout the proceedings. For example, when Phil goes to the open house, Dell introduces his wife (Kimberley Shoniker) with a reference to It’s a Wonderful Life, a very on-the-nose indictment of how home ownership has been commoditized to exclude the working class people that George Bailey spent his life helping.

That’s some really good stuff, and it’s aided by the remarkable chemistry Dinklage and MacLaine have with each other as performers. They play off one another quite well, each matching the other’s energy, wit, and commitment to the bit. There’s a lovely runner where Phil has to comically come to Astrid’s aid at multiple points, with each instance making her care more for him, even when it leads into pure absurdity, with Astrid drunkenly coming on to him late in the film.

However, pretty much everything on the periphery is scattershot. Dell’s character is a pure asshole, for example. Phil is as well, but that doesn’t mean they have anything in common, so why would Phil use him to help him house hunt? Surely there’s another option in Massachusetts who can show realistic properties without being a dick about how rich he is. Similarly, Glover’s character, while fun, feels completely superfluous, only having the slightest plot utility due to a mistaken identity thanks to his poor eyesight, which is never established before he starts taking blurry photographs.

Exposition as a whole is problematic here. Phil is chastised for not running a background check on Astrid, yet no one does a competent one after the fact, because if they had, it would instantly resolve the almost sitcom-level conflict that drives the entire plot. There’s also the fact that Phil finds the classified listing in a piece of newspaper that’s being used to line a drawer in the faculty lounge. Who knows how old it is or if its information is even relevant? It’s flimsy at best, and it only works because the script says it should. For some reason, Phil fantasizes about having two girlfriends/wives who are stunningly beautiful twins (both played by Rebecca Olson), who tell him to see a psychiatrist, but they’re just an aside to the audience, not any kind of statement of delusion or mental illness that would cloud Phil’s judgment. There’s a strange sexual undertone to all of Phil’s encounters with women in this movie that doesn’t play into anything at all. I’m all for showing instead of telling, but we’re given almost nothing to go on, and it all feels like odd window dressing.

Still, the film does have its heart in the right place. At the core this is a story about how messed up our economic system is in very real terms, and how two people can form an unlikely bond in a batshit situation. That’s enough for a quality, feel-good picture, and Dinklage and MacLaine do their part admirably. It’s a strong selling point. I just wish all the ancillary small print and extra clauses made sense.

Grade: B-

Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? Do you think you’ll ever be able to afford a home? Is there any more satisfying visual for grumps like me than Peter Dinklage downing an entire glass of wine in one go? Let me know! And remember, you can follow me on Twitter (fuck “X”) and YouTube for even more content!

Originally published at on March 12, 2024.



William J Hammon

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