Review Scoring Chart - 10: Masterpiece; 9: Outstanding; 8: Very Good; 7: Good; 6: Above Average; 5: Average; 4: Below Average; 3: Bad; 2: Awful; 1: Reprehensible; 0: Non- Functional.
Dir: Larry Charles
Stars: Sacha Baron Cohen, Ben Kingsley, Anna Faris, Jason Mantzoukas
Running Time: 83mins
With his fame ensuring the mockumentary stylings of Borat and Bruno are unlikely to be achieved again, The Dictator marks Sacha Baron Cohen's first attempt at returning to scripted comedy since the disastrous Ali G Indahouse (2002). There are moments when the transition stutters, reverting to the gross-out comedy sketches and controversy-chasing that have been tiresome since the aftermath of the first American Pie. Fortunately, the moments when Cohen relaxes and plays to his natural gift of verbal sparring, a clearer and more charming comedy voice emerges for the actor and character.
Admiral General Aladeen - a name which may be a pun on Aladdin, given Cohen's observation that many Westerners see people of the same skin colour as interchangeable - occupies virtually every scene in the movie, making it fortunate that Cohen has such a knack for creating vivid and likeable characters. The Western world sees many dictators as figures of fun (the movie is dedicated to the memory of Kim Jong-Il) because of their absurd grandiosity, even if the barbarism underpinning it is disgraceful, and Cohen pitches his character's excesses so deliriously over-the-top that Aladeen is hard to dislike, despite his fondness for ordering the execution of virtually everyone he comes into contact with.
One of the biggest disappointments is how little time is spent watching Aladeen rule his fictional kingdom of Wadiyah with an iron fist. The news reports opening the movie offer brief vignettes of escalating absurdity, with his response to a UN order for him to cease enriching uranium making delightfully explicit what is clearly going through the minds of every dictator declaring their peaceful intent. Because many of Aladeen's lunatic personality traits are derived from existing or recently deceased dictators, most obviously Muammar Gaddafi, the character is conveyed quickly and effectively. Nevertheless, given the many stories the supporting characters tell about his reign, it would have been fun to spend more time watching Aladeen at the height of his powers.
The narrative quickly takes the character to New York to address a UN Security Council, and Cohen wisely holds off on overplaying the fish-out-of-water card to avoid comparisons with Borat. Where the Azerbaijani reporter was an innocent overawed by the scale and spectacle of American culture, Aladeen is largely unimpressed by it. While John C. Reilly's cameo as a xenophobic bodyguard is painfully blunt in making its points, the subsequent torture scene, where Aladeen mocks the Americans' primitive equipment (lambasting one device as banned in Saudi Arabia 'for being too safe'), allows Cohen to settle into the kind of comic rhythm and wordplay that forms the bedrock of the movie's strongest scenes. Perhaps the best of these is a later suicide attempt, where Aladeen accidentally reveals all the bad habits he has picked up during his time in New York.
Once Aladeen has escaped capture, he winds up working in the grocery of a vegan feminist named Zoey, taking the movie into unexpectedly traditional romantic comedy territory. True, Aladeen is roundly dismissive of his new employer's cup size and respect for races other than her own, but the escalated ridiculousness never fully disguises the predictability of the two hooking up. Fortunately, Cohen's cynical British sensibility ensures there's a twist to the ending, riffing on the human habit of only caring about terrible things as long as we're not the ones benefiting from them, managing to have the sappy reunion demanded by studios without sacrificing the character's devious nature.
The supporting cast are not given much to do, with Kingsley solely required to hold his standard grumpy expression and Faris disappointingly wide-eyed and cutesy for an actress whose reputation has been built on her willingness to go broad and bawdy. That she would have been better suited to Megan Fox's cameo says everything about how the actress is wasted in the role, and not in her usual way. Faris might have brought some ballsiness to Fox's part as an actress bribed by Aladeen for sex, where the Transformers actress delivers every line in flat monotone. Only Jason Mantzoukas, as Aladeen's former nuclear chief, Nadal, manages to make an impact, playing the rolly-polly sidekick in a similar vein to Ken Davitian's Azamat in Borat. Where Faris' Zoey mostly reacts, Nadal has a history with Aladeen - not a particularly harmonious one - allowing them to bounce off each other as both friends (of a sort) and reluctant partners.
The moments when Cohen allows the movie to slip into self-contained sketches are when Dictator loses credibility. In Borat, the sketches worked because they involved real people reacting unknowingly to an agent provocateur, generating controversy through genuine circumstance. When Aladeen breaks into a funeral to steal the corpse's beard, or intervenes in an unexpected childbirth - which admittedly does have one or two moments of inspired idiocy - the vulgarity fails to spark because it is so obviously contrived. (Aladeen's selection of Wii games is an appalling treat, though). The surfeit of such scenes throughout the movie's middle act make for a choppy experience, with only small pockets of laughs, and shows Cohen struggling to adapt to the demands of the scripted form. Fortunately, Aladeen is engaging and silly enough to pull through such troublesome moments and while the rom-com elements are mostly formulaic, it is at least one of the braver and more unashamedly mad entries in the genre in recent years. [ 6 ]
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