The Dictator (2012) / Comedy
MPAA rated: R for strong crude and sexual content, nudity, language and some violent images
Running time: 83 min.
Cast: Sacha Baron Cohen, Anna Faris, Ben Kingsley, Jason Mantzoukas, Chris Parnell, Jessica St. Clair, Kathryn Hahn, Seth Morris, Fred Armisen, J.B. Smoove
Cameo: Aasif Mandvi, Horatio Sanz, Megan Fox, Kevin Corrigan, Chris Elliott, B.J. Novak, John C. Reilly, Garry Shandling
Director: Larry Charles
Screenplay: Sacha Baron Cohen, Alec Berg, David Mandel, Jeff Schaffer
The third big screen collaboration between comedic actor Sacha Baron Cohen (Bruno, Madagascar 2) and director Larry Charles (Religulous, Borat), only this time, it is less of the mockumentary style of their previous two endeavors, and more of a straight screwball comedy. Unfortunately, the less he strays from the immediate social satire and "candid camera" antics, the more manufactured the comedy appears, and The Dictator sure does feel like a forced effort to be controversial. Not that it doesn't have its moments, but those moments feel more like surprises than within the natural flow of the rest of the film.
Cohen stars as the titular dictator, General Aladeen of the fictional North African country of Wadiya (basically, he's an amalgam of most prominent dictators of the last 20 years), who thoroughly enjoys every aspect of his role as his country's great oppressor, as well as the bane of the Western world. One day, while on a trip to New York City to address the UN Security Council on the status of his country's suspicious nuclear development program, he is double-crossed by his "faithful" assistant, Tamir (Kingsley, Prince of Persia), who schemes to assassinate Aladeen and replace him with an imposter, in order to open up the country to capitalist exploits.
Aladeen manages to escape, losing his crazy beard in the process, and roaming the New york streets with no one to believe him as the true dictator when the daft imposter takes over. Now a common man, Aladeen makes fast friends with Zoey (Faris, Observe and Report), a staunch local activist who runs an organic food store in the neighborhood. He also runs into his former top scientist in charge of Wadiya's nuclear program, Nadal (Mantzoukas), a man Aladeen once ordered killed only to find out that all of his executions are merely transported out of the country. He and Nadal conspire to take back the country and finish what they've started -- the program to develop a nuclear weapon and terrorize the world.
Where Borat succeeds is in the big laugh quotient, with some scenes so funny that giddiness carries many viewers over the more sophomoric attempts at comedy. The Dictator is pretty much all sophomoric hijinks, and while Cohen does inject a few scenes where he goes over the line of taste for laughs (one involving losing a cell phone in a woman's vagina while she's giving birth), these scenes seem more like attempts to swing for the fences with ribald humor that the audience expects than in anything the storyline might genuinely inspire organically (ironic that the scene occurs in an organic food store). Whereas Cohen is bold, brash and funny in duping unsuspecting real people into believing his outlandish characterizations, in the course of a wholly manufactured straight comedy, he doesn't stand out when every other character is a gross exaggeration, and the humor value greatly diminishes.
The film would probably have worked better as a satire of how 'democratization' of countries rules by iron dictators is done more out of purely commercial reasons than it is out of a desire to help an oppressed people. There is one semi-brilliant bit when Aladeen, finally able to address the UN, is essentially pointing out the despicable rights violations that have happened in democratic countries in recent years, which does cause one pause in realizing just how many civil liberties have indeed eroded due to corporate influence, news organizations with political agendas, and politicians who coerce the public into voting against their own interests and making it seem like freedom.
Sadly, that is but one shining moment amid a sea of crass ineptitude. Cohen tries more to be controversial than funny, where he usually has been both. Unless you're one to giggle at raunchy gross-out slapstick independent of genuinely inspired wit, The Dictator can be quite oppressive to laughter.
©2012 Vince Leo