Review: The Dictator
|REVIEWS - MOVIES|
Sacha Baron Cohen launches his latest current-affairs grotesque on the big screen...
As a fan of Sacha Baron Cohen's comedic instincts, if not always their results, I awaited with no small anticipation the release of The Dictator, which promised to take him down rarely-explored roads - that of entirely fiction film-making. Gone is the assaultive pseudo-documentary comedy of Borat and Bruno (and, for that matter, Da Ali G Show), and in its place we get Cohen's insanity unleashed outside of a single character and into an entire world. I only wish that world was, well, funny.
The Dictator begins promisingly enough, with a quick backstory showing the rise to power of Admiral General Aladeen (Cohen) in the fictional North African country of the Republic of Wadiya. He hits all the marks we've come to associate with these infamous figures - egotistical, extravagant, ruthless, oppressive, and self-centered, Aladeen uses Wadiya as his personal playground, sometimes literally remaking the landscape in his image. After being convinced to address the United Nations by his brother and chief adviser, Tamir (Ben Kingsley, giving so little energy to the role you have to wonder why they bothered), he arrives in New York only to be instantly betrayed. He's kidnapped, tortured (one of the few great comedic bits has Cohen shaming John C. Reilly for not having the latest torture devices), and robbed on his most identifying characteristic - his massive beard.
Without that, and lacking his possessions, no one believes that he is Aladeen. He's soon mistaken for a protestor by Zoey (Anna Faris), the owner of an herbal/organic/commune market in Brooklyn, and that’s where things start to get rocky. Aladeen quickly loses all of his distinguishing characteristics, becoming whatever kind of person the screenplay needs him to be at a given time. It’s established early on that he’s a bit lonely (the “lonely dictator” concept was used to much greater effect in Team America, for what it’s worth), so it’s within the realm of possibility that he’d take a liking to Zoey, but her way of life? The market, the anti-capitalist strain, the disdain for exactly the kind of person she is? I know we’re operating in a comedic landscape here, but Cohen’s world is never quite defined.
Cohen and his creative team (director Larry Charles and co-screenwriters Alec Berg, David Mandel, and Jeff Schaffer) take a very loose approach to the material, using the down-and-out-dictator-in-New-York set-up for any number of gags, not unlike the way the Marx Brothers or even Charlie Chaplin would fill the middle of their pictures. But a lot has changed in film production since then, most prominently the very language of film. The modern emphasis on fluidity forces upon The Dictator the appearance of a streamlined film in which each scene in some way plays off the last, when it’s really a lot more scattershot than that. It sounds like a minor, nitpicky thing, but it in fact informs the entire shape of the picture, resulting in a disjointed experience, one in which it’s difficult to find your footing, much less settle in for the next joke.
As I said, there are a number of good bits in the film, and Cohen has excellent chemistry with Jason Mantzoukas, who plays Aladeen’s former nuclear engineer, with whom Aladeen collaborates to get them both reinstated. But most of the jokes, especially the extended bits, fall totally flat. The worst is Aladeen’s habit of looking to signs around town to provide aliases (resulting in names like Ladi Swashroom), which doesn’t hit the first time, much less the sixth. Moreover, much of the film derives humor from the “I-can’t-believe-they-went-there” department; there’s not always a joke, as such, more just the presentation of something “totally outrageous,” the appeal of which is necessarily limited. Anna Faris is clearly game for anything, including toning down her looks, and in many ways she comes away the film’s best asset - by far its most consistent and reliable, bringing humor from within. She’s often saddled with the “girl role” insisted upon in most comedies, but she takes advantage of every rare instance to get a laugh without milking it.
The film culminates in what I’m sure many will take to be a rather scathing indictment of American society. It’s nothing terribly revelatory, though it is refreshing to hear in a big mainstream film, but if history has taught us anything, it will be instantly laughed off by those who aren’t quite convinced of its potency. It’s a genuinely good moment, but the film could’ve used a lot more, and if that was its target all along, rather than the safe, foreign, and even slightly outdated (insofar as it’s long gone through the cycle of modern comedy) target of foreign overlords, Cohen really could’ve had something on his hands. As it is, it’s kind of a limp comedy disguised as outrageous satire.
The Dictator is on general release now.
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