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The Dictator (2012)

May 27, 2012

 

written by: Sacha Baron Cohen, Alec Berg, David Mandel & Jeff Schaffer

produced by: Sacha Baron Cohen, Alec Berg, David Mandel, Jeff Schaffer, Scott Rudin & Dan Mazer

directed by: Larry Charles

rating: R (for strong crude and sexual content, brief male nudity, language and some violent images)

runtime: 83 min.

U.S. release date: May 18, 2012

 

“The Dictator” taught me one thing about my moviegoing – just because I occasionally laugh out loud, doesn’t mean I walked away from a good movie. Not that this comedy, which reunites actor Sacha Baron Cohen (who also co-writes and co-produces) with director Larry Charles (“Borat” and “Bruno”), is out to educate viewers, but that’s really about all I could take away from my viewing experience. Cohen has already established his brazenly offensive humor, subjected audiences to his racist, sexist, and lewd comedy that often includes wink-wink social and political commentary. His two previous films with Charles benefited from a loose improvisational feel which incorporated uncomfortable shocks, but “The Dictator” plays it safe with a lazy screenplay that primarily pokes fun at Middle Eastern stereotypes and perceptions. While there are some hilarious moments, the movie winds up feeling like a series of comedic skits patched together with overplayed jokes. The endlessly played trailers and TV spots may have shown some promise, but it seems like efforts to stretch this material out to feature-length have fallen flat.

In the fictional North African country of the Republic of Wadiya, the despised Admiral General Aladeen (Sacha Baron Cohen) rules his people with an equal amount of cruelty and cluelessness. He spends most of his time parading around with his female supermodel  bodyguards, delivering stereotypical hate speeches (generally taking aim at Jews and Americans) with a smile, cherishing his holy beard, and conquesting celebrities like Megan Fox (playing herself) in his royal quarters. On the inside, Aladeen only wants someone to cuddle with, but on the outside, he freely gives out execution orders whole overseeing the development of his own weapons of mass destruction. At his side is his aide and confidant, his uncle Tamir (Ben Kingsley), who is also the actual true heir to the throne which the spoiled Aladeen has sat on for the past 40 years.

When the United Nations demand that the Admiral General allow inspectors access to his weapons, he decides to take his entourage to New York City and address them personally. Upon arrival, Aladeen is kidnapped by a U.S. liaison (an uncredited and all too-brief, John C. Reilly), stripped of his authoritative beard and cast out into NYC in his skivvies. Unrecognizable, he ironically lands in the middle of a group of protestors opposing the presence of the Wadiyan dictator, where he meets Zoey (Anna Faris) an activist/feminist and owner of a local vegan/alternative co-op food store. As she takes the pathetic funny-looking foreigner in, Aladeen notices Tamir from afar, who seems unaffected by the despot’s absence, having replaced him with an unsurprisingly passable idiot look-alike, Efawadh (also played by Cohen), from Wadiya. Aladeen soon realizes he must prevent Tamir from using his double to announce to the world his country’s shift to that of a democracy. He enlists the help of a man he thought he had killed, Nadal (Jason Mantzoukas, a great straight-man to Cohen), who worked for Aladeen as a nuclear scientist. Together, they have to figure out a way to get past security, take out the fake Aladeen without the plotting Tamir finding out, and ensure his dictatorship position remains intact. The biggest obstacle threatening Aladeen’s autocratic rule is his unexpected infatuation with the peace-loving Zoey and the bustling city in which she lives.

 

 

Right away, it’s obvious that Charles, Cohen and company are making fun of the various outrageous dictators we’ve seen stir it up in the news for the past three decades. Saddam Hussein and his like have certainly displayed their own God complexes with little attention paid to those under them, which is what Cohen emphasizes here.  Because the actor is doing what we’re used to seeing him do in a lead role, “The Dictator” can’t ever really take itself seriously, even though it tries to with an uneven and unconvincing budding romance between Aladeen and Zoey. Satirizing and mocking the Middle Eastern culture and how they’re viewed by Americans is where the film finds its strengths. There’s also a fun comedic montage which shows Aladeen working at Zoey’s store, but most of these funny parts can be found in the trailers and really make up for the film’s repetitious whole.

There have been plenty of comedies in the past that have parodied or satirized real-life events or characters, in order to make some kind of statement – but “The Dictator” infuses itself with too much stupidity for any social statement to stick.  Charles and Cohen heavily rely on gross-out comedy to earn juvenile laughs, instead of elevating the material to something that could possibly resonate with viewers. Instead, what we get is bodily function humor, Cohen’s naked crotch, and birthing canal POV shots. These scenes aren’t as awkward and/or uncomfortable as similar scenes in “Borat”, here it just feels lazy and lame – as if they were included because we expect them out of a Cohen movie.

That being said, some of the best parts of a Cohen movie can usually be found watching the various actors who work alongside him. Unfortunately, only a couple really work here (like Faris and Mantzoukas), while others are written into rehashed stereotypes (Kingsley), short supporting roles (a hilarious Fred Armisen, a reliable Chris Parnell and an indistinguishable Kevin Corrigan) or quick cameos (Edward Norton). As Zoey, Faris continues to show impeccable comfort and timing in her comedic work, often proving to be the best thing in a not-so-great movie. Kudos to the actress for displaying impressive commitment to her granola-crunchy role by actually growing out her armpit hair for six months. Her work here reminds me that she remains in need of material better than what she usually winds up with.

 

 

Much of the humor in “The Dictator” got old fast for me – and for a movie that’s under and hour and a half, that’s not good. I found myself interesting in half-mentioned subplots that were never explored. For example, it was intriguing to learn that many of the Wadiyans that Aladeen thought he had executed had secretly migrated to a borough in NYC that has become Little Wadiya. That’s a curious storyline that was all but ignored. Also disregarded is the background behind the Aladeen/Tamir story, which could’ve given depth and further motivation for the two characters. It’s obvious though that the movie is too impatient and immature for any examination or characterization (after all, it is “dedicated to Kim Jong-li”). Cohen remains most happy relying on the cocky confidence and abrasive absurdity that both he and his characters bring to the big-screen.

While I’m not as crazy about him as everyone else, I see Cohen as a bold talent – but I’d like to see him work with a director other than Charles.  He needs someone to steer him out of his comfort zone, like Scorsese did in “Hugo”, to showcase his seldom seen range. Since this schtick is what he’s known for, my bet is that we’ll continue to see more of it. Still, I’d rather see another Cohen movie than anything from Adam Sandler.

 

 

 

RATING: **

 

 

 

 

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