Dictator, The (United States, 2012)May 15, 2012
One of the cleverest moments in Sacha Baron Cohen's The Dictator comes during the first five seconds: a memorial dedication to Kim Jong Il. It's all downhill from there. To be fair, the movie's relentlessly un-PC humor results in some hilarious sequences, but they occur unevenly and are buffered by a storyline that could have been lifted from an Adam Sandler film. In fact, that's largely what The Dictator feels like: something Sandler might make if he was interested in fashioning a satire of global politics. The material in The Dictator is of the sort that lends itself to a trailer and various publicity stunts. As a short or a Saturday Night Live extract, it could have been gleefully absurd and incisive. But, laden with a painfully underwritten narrative, it quickly becomes obvious that the concept cannot support a feature length film (or at least not this feature length film).
The opening is promising. We are introduced to Admiral General Aladeen (Cohen), the dictator of the (fictional) oil rich nation of Wadiya (which neighbors Somalia and Ethiopia in North Africa). Aladeen is perhaps the most narcissistic man on the planet. He has slept with just about every major celebrity (an early scene shows Megan Fox getting out of his bed and refusing to cuddle with him), holds his own version of the Olympics (where he wins every event), and is pursuing an active nuclear program. While in New York preparing to make a speech before the U.N., Aladeen is betrayed by his right-hand man, Tamir (Ben Kingsley), who seeks to replace the Supreme Leader with his body double. Aladeen escapes from his kidnappers but is unable to convince anyone of his true identity. He finds shelter with Zoey (Anna Faris), the proprietor of a vegan health store. He is helped in his bid to regain his rightful position by Nadal (Jason Mantoukas), the exiled former head of Aladeen's nuclear program.
The Dictator exhausts the majority of its cleverness and creativity in its first fifteen minutes. After that, it churns through obligatory plot points on its way to a disappointingly vanilla ending. There are worthwhile comedic vignettes along the way - the helicopter scene with Nadal and Aladeen referencing Osama Bin Laden and his Porsche 911 while fellow passengers squirm is laugh-aloud funny, but the humor is more often than not disappointing. The best thing that can be said of Cohen's brand of jokes is that he holds nothing sacred. It's hard to imagine anything being off-bounds for him; the word "taboo" does not apply. But those familiar with his previous projects are aware of that.
Borat, the film that rocketed Cohen from his small niche of cable TV fame to big screen notoriety and stardom, may have become a millstone around the actor's neck. His follow-up, Bruno, emerged as a pale imitation of Borat, an attempt to re-capture lightning in a bottle. The Dictator, although not employing one of Cohen's The Ali G. Show personalities, often seems to be mining similar veins of comedy. Director Larry Charles, who helmed Borat and Bruno, brings a similar sensibility to this film, but the sly, vicious wit is undercut by the lifeless script, which destroys much of what could be compelling about The Dictator by forcing structure upon it. The plot-by-numbers story isn't merely clumsy; it's insulting and damaging. Had The Dictator followed the blueprint of its first fifteen minutes, the experience would have been entirely different. The movie collapses once it throws Aladeen onto the streets of New York City where it can't even manage a good fish-out-of-water tale. The in-your-face, way-too-obvious political message at the climax is presented with all the subtlety of a Michael Moore documentary. Even those who agree with it are likely to find it sloppily shoehorned in.
One has to admire Cohen's willingness to do just about anything for a joke, including reveal what's under his robes (although that could have been a prosthetic or CGI). As comedians go, he's among the most daring, but more than chutzpah is needed to transform a good idea into a good movie. Cohen's love interest is played by Anna Faris, who dyed her hair dark and cut it short in order for her to closely resemble the "boy" Aladeen initially believes her to be. Faris is either miscast or underused or, more probably, both. She and Cohen evidence no chemistry, although the ”love story" aspect is so badly conceived and developed that it's worth wondering whether any actress could have pulled it off. Maybe Meryl Streep. Speaking of Oscar winners, Streep may not be on hand but Ben Kingsley is, proving once again that Kingsley is among the least picky Sirs when it comes to accepting roles.
At times, The Dictator plays out like a war between two movies: a savvy, barbed satire and a flaccid, generic potty-mouthed comedy. Unfortunately, when the balance sheet is tallied by the end of the final credits, the latter has won the battle.
Dictator, The (United States, 2012)
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1
Screenplay: Sacha Baron Cohen, Alec Berg, David Mandel, Jeff Schaffer
Cinematography: Lawrence Sher
Music: Erran Baron Cohen