Friday, May 25, 2012

Movie Review: The Dictator

The Dictator ***
Directed by: Larry Charles.
Written by: Sacha Baron Cohen & Alec Berg & David Mandel & Jeff Schaffer.
Starring: Sacha Baron Cohen (Aladeen / Efawadh), Anna Faris (Zoey), Ben Kingsley (Tamir), Jason Mantzoukas (Nadal), Megan Fox (Herself), Chris Parnell (News Anchor), Jessica St. Clair (Denise), Bobby Lee (Mr. Lao), Fred Armisen (Waiter / Minister).

Sacha Baron Cohen is a master at smart-stupid comedy. His comedies always center around an obnoxious central character who says unbelievably offensive things that you find yourself laughing at in spite of yourself, sometimes simply because you cannot believe that he would actually say what he does. His last two films – Borat and Bruno – had Baron Cohen in character interacting with unsuspecting people, making them, and the audience, confront their own prejudices, and seeing how far he can push them before they snap. Because Baron Cohen has become famous, he really cannot do that anymore, so his latest is more of a traditional, scripted movie, with a plot and supporting characters – played by actual actors. The result is still one of the funniest movies you will see this year – and continues to show Baron Cohen’s brilliance as a comedic performer – but doesn’t quite have the same verve and audacity of his previous two films.

In The Dictator, Baron Cohen plays General Aladeen, supreme leader of the fictional, North African nation of Wadiya. He is rich beyond all measure, because of the all the oil reserves his country has, and yet he is angering the UN by not letting weapons inspectors in – with good reason, since he is trying to develop nuclear weapons. They tell him unless he addresses the UN General Assembly in New York, they will impose sanctions on his nation. So he heads off to New York with his trusty aid Tamir (Ben Kingsley) – who of course, isn’t so trusty after all, and is planning to get rid of Aladeen, replace him with his idiot double Efawadh (Baron Cohen again, hilarious again) and turn Wadiya into a democracy – so he can sell the oil rights and make billions. The assassination plan goes awry, and Aladeen finds himself, beardless, in New York City trying to regain power – and having to hang out with an enlightened, feminist, organic grocer Zoey (Anna Faris).

Aladeen is not a million miles away from Baron Cohen`s breakthrough role of Borat. Both are gleefully ignorant, misogynistic, anti-Semitic and racist. And yet, there is an undeniable sweetness and innocence beneath all the bluster. His characters are cluelessly offensive, not understanding why what they do seems so outrageous to others. The pleasure of Borat, and Bruno for that matter, was rubbing the people he talks to – and the audiences – own prejudices in their faces. In The Dictator, Baron Cohen has to script these reactions, and the result, while not as good, is still hilarious at times. It helps that many of Aladeen`s most offensive statements are made to Zoey`s Anna Faris. Faris is the best ditz in the business right now – with those wide eyes, and a face that is so open, yet so clueless, Faris is a talented comic actor on Baron Cohen`s level, and plays off him brilliantly (too bad she so rarely gets material that measure up to her talent).

Many critics have, rightly, pointed out that The Dictator is inspired by two comedic masterpieces – The Marx Brothers gleefully zany Duck Soup (1933), with Groucho as the leader of the country of Freedonia, and Charlie Chaplin`s The Great Dictator (1940), Chaplin`s shot across the bow at Hitler. What The Dictator has in common with these films is the same goofy spirit – a willingness to go completely over the top – and yet have a serious point beneath it all. The best moment in the movie is when Aladeen finally gives his speech to the UN, exposing the benefits of a dictatorship to Americans, which essentially ends up mocking the entire American political system. Yes, Baron Cohen is a goofball, and a comedic genius, who isn’t afraid of gross out humor but his films have a point beneath them.

While The Dictator is the funniest movie I have seen in months, it just can`t come close to the genius of Borat, or even Bruno. I would suggest that while Baron Cohen`s movies pretty much have to more conventional than those two films (because he will find it hard to find people who don’t know who he is anymore), that perhaps he needs to team with a better director next time. Larry Charles was a good choice for the anarchy of the first two films, but Baron Cohen needs someone with a little more focus and vision going forward. The Dictator is still a great comedy – but it could have been even better.

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