Friday, May 18, 2012

The Dictator - Theatrical Review


Release Date: May 16, 2012

It's been 3 years since we last saw Sacha Baron Cohen grace the silver screen as one of his many mad personalities. The Dictator however marks the actor's first attempt at a real scripted Hollywood film and although it takes a hit in the outrageous department, I think it will please most of his loyal fans and even garner a few new ones.

Review Vital Stats:
Theater: AMC 30 at the Block in Orange
Time: 12:01 am May 16, 2012
Projector Type: Digital 2D
Film Rating: R
Film Runtime: 1 hr 23 min
Studio: Paramount

Loves: Comedy with a bite to it
Likes: Sacha Baron Cohen, Anna Faris
Neutral: Generic romantic comedies
Hates: How dam ignorant Americans can be sometimes
Did you know?: The director of The Dictator, Larry Charles, also directed Cohen's other two films, Borat and Bruno.

Like many comedic actors out there, Sacha Baron Cohen is an acquired taste. Besides his first film Borat, which was an overnight sensation back in 2006 when it was released, and a handful of supporting roles in films such as Sweeney Todd and last years Hugo, I hadn't been exposed to him and his comic stylings too much. When I first saw the adverts for his new film The Dictator, it seemed to be going for the same shock value that helped turn the actor into the now infamous performer he is seen as today. Once again there were countless jabs at multiple ethnic groups, religions, countries and genders, so I wasn't too surprised at the actual content of the film. But what caught me off guard a little was that Cohen seemed to be attempting to make a legitimate film, something with an actual plot and characters. That intrigued me, I was interested in how his particular brand of hate-ridden comedy would translate over to the formula of a much more traditional Hollywood feature. While he still makes good on all the requisite hate mongering and outrageous situations one would expect, it felt as though the sting of his delivery was diluted slightly by what amounts to nothing more than a rather generic romantic comedy in the end.

General Aladeen (Sacha Baron Cohen), the ruthless dictator of the fictional nation of Wadiya, has started a campaign to make his own nuclear device. Why does he want a nuclear weapon? Because all his friends have one of course! After being threatened by the United Nations to stand down from his endeavor to become a nuclear world power he is forced to travel to America and speak before his peers. Once in America however, he is abducted and replaced with a look-a-like who will do every bidding of Aladeen's evil Uncle, Samir (Ben Kingsley). Soon Aladeen finds himself at the mercy of the American people as he is forced to fend for himself. He is brought in off the street by a local do gooder and general pacifist, Zoey (Anna Faris). While simultaneously trying to subvert the conspiracy against him, Aladeen finds himself entranced by Zoey and her gentle nature which makes him start to question his view on the world and his supposed enemies.

General Aladeen is welcomed to America.

First of all, anyone thinking that Cohen has sold out need only see the first image of the film where the face of Kim Jong il kindly graces the screen with the text, "In Loving Memory of". That sets the stage perfectly for the next hour or so of lunacy that comes after. The Dictator is somewhat of a curiosity though, in the sense that it seems to be stuck in this really bizarre limbo between Cohen's previous unscripted works and a traditional romcom (romantic/comedy). The first 20 minutes or so is nothing more than one stereotypical and hateful jab at middle eastern society after another, most of it not even all that original (his initial speech to the people of Wadiya falls flat in a bad way). But there is some good stuff in there, like Aladeen's penchant for sleeping with the Hollywood elite as exemplified by a scene with Megan Fox (playing herself), his bad habit of executing anyone who disagrees with him or how he spends his spare time re-enacting the events of the 1972 Munich Olympic Summer games by playing his favorite videogame.

So yes, he still tries to find as many ways to anger as many people as humanly possible, and succeeds mostly. Fans of his will love most of everything he does as the cruel leader of the Wadiyan people. There were moments where I couldn't believe what I was seeing or hearing, some of the shit Cohen gets away with is quite honestly mind boggling, but that's what I like about him and his work in general. Only he could help give birth to a baby and upon discovering its gender asks, "Where is the trash can?". He even manages to make the age old joke of a man learning how to pleasure himself funny again. Seriously, I hadn't laughed so hard at something like that all year. But...(and you knew this was coming), I don't think his style of comedy works nearly as well in a scripted format. Having all these jokes about anti-feminism, anti Semitic comments, physically crippled people and just generally bashing America in every way possible didn't seem to have much bite to it as it should have.

Zoey takes Aladeen in after he is abandoned by his people.

I'm sure some of that has to do with the fact that I am a very difficult person to insult, I can find humor in just about anything, but I also believe that Cohen seems to have lost some of his natural spark in the translation from the world of improv to this more formulaic and scripted medium. It feels strange to say this about a film that features two men decapitate a corpse just for its beard, but in some offbeat way this movie feels tame in comparison to his other films. As far as he goes here with some of the jokes (just wait for the birthing scene), it always felt like he could have, and should have, gone much further. Watching the film, I would every now and then get the suspicion that Cohen was holding back, that he felt the need to keep it toned down just enough in order to not upset EVERYONE. That was the trade off though for trying to appeal to a larger crowd. If he went too far he would alienate general audiences and because of that sacrifice, The Dictator feels a little too safe for its own good.

I don't think Cohen's brand of comedy works well within the confines of your everyday romantic comedy either, it really doesn't. The character of Aladeen seems constantly at odds with his two personalities. How he suddenly decides to become a better person felt a little forced, especially since the moment where he decides he loves Zoey is brought on by something we never see her do again. The romance part of The Dictator is probably the worst thing about the film, but it isn't horrible either. I thought Cohen and Farris made for a cute and somewhat likable couple with her naivety (something Farris excels at) and his blatant rudeness. While I found most of their scenes together nice and often pretty funny (his comments about her body hair only get funnier the more he goes on about it), I couldn't bring myself to really give a shit if they got together, which they do of course. That right there tells me it was a failure on that end. But if it was going to be a failure at anything, that is what I would want it to have failed at.

Aladeen takes to American life quite easily.

Now, I mentioned that much of the comedy in comparison to Cohen's other films feels watered down here, and it most certainly does (there are no scenes with two naked men 69'ing each other for instance), but that doesn't mean there aren't some well earned laughs. Much of the comedy is derived from 9/11 and how most Americans still freak out at the sight of anyone that even looks a hint like a possible terrorist (in other words, middle eastern). Some might say it is too soon but I for one thought some of the jokes were pretty dam hilarious simply because I think anyone who profiles another person anymore is just ridiculous and Cohen showcases that stupidity perfectly. When he and his friend take their helicopter ride over New York and begin speaking in their native language about places they want to visit, probably the single most successful and flat out insanely funny scene in the entire film for me. It was just so stupid, yet it was also so accurate in its depiction of how scared America is still.

This movie needed much more of that. I would have loved to have seen Aladeen interact with New York in a bigger way. Instead he was relegated to working inside a single shop for most of the film because the script says he has to fall in love with Zoey...*yawn*. The film certainly tries to make our time spent in that shop tolerable by having Aladeen treat every customer and employee as though he will have them executed if they don't do what he says (he even tortures an employee with electrodes to the testicles for taking money from the cash register), but once again while that works for most comedies of this sort, it felt almost beneath Cohen to be so...normal. He tries to shake things up by using his absurd accent to squeeze out as many jokes as possible but that wears out its welcome by the time he starts making up names from random signs that he sees. Is how he pronounces vagina (say it like this, "Va-High-Na") really that funny? I suppose it would be to most but it just got sort of boring after a little while for me. I feel as though Cohen is a much better actor than that, he should leave the silly voices to Adam Sandler, an actor who still can't make them funny even after almost two decades worth of practice.

They look like your average everyday tourists right?

There are flashes of brilliance in the film all over the place though that help make up for many of its relatively small faults. Whenever it becomes a true Sacha Baron Cohen comedy it almost always works but when it decides to go back into romcom territory again it really starts to lose itself. Cohen is at his best when he is putting a spotlight on people at their worst and those are the best parts of The Dictator, where he just focuses on one group or one religion and just lets them have it. The speech Aladeen gives at the end of the film (while sort of a cop out) is a great example of what this film could have been if they would have just ditched the entire romance subplot and focused on everything having to do with him trying to fit into a society that wants him dead. There was so much truth to that speech that I don't think most of America will even realize that he was talking shit on our way of life...and that is sort of awesome and something I wanted much more of.

There isn't much more to say about the film, it isn't his best work but it also isn't all that bad either. There are just enough funny moments and gags littered throughout its mercifully short runtime that I think it makes up for many of its more normal and somewhat rudimentary parts. If not for the completely unnecessary romance bits, I think this could have been one of the best comedies of the year. But as it is, it works as a serviceable, if not very memorable comedy. If you are not that interested in watching a board game come to life this weekend and want a few laughs to tide you over instead (and let's face it, there aren't any other real comedies out there right now) then I think The Dictator has what you need. Just don't go in expecting to have your world blown away like Borat did and you should have an OK time with it. So with that I suggest you give it a chance and...




Brian said...

That speech near the end WAS A W E S O M E
To bad most people in the theater won't realize that he is talking about us.

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