Dir. by Larry Charles - 1 hr. 23 min.
by Clayton Hollifield
"The Dictator" is closer to "Ali G Indahouse" than it is to "Borat." That's not to say that it's not funny, but it's something to keep in mind if you're debating whether or not to see "The Dictator." This is not an extended prank movie with real reactions, it's a scripted comedy. Sacha Baron Cohen is good at those, too, but without the natural reactions of non-actors, some of the comedy lacks a punch.
Cohen plays Admiral General Haffaz Aladeen, a brutal dictator in the fictional African country of Wadiya. When he comes to the United States to address the U.N., he is ousted from power and replaced with a imbecilic double. Of course, this doesn't sit well with him, and with the help of Zoey (Anna Faris), he tries to adapt to life in America (while secretly plotting to get his dictatorship back). If that sounds like a thin plot, you'd partially be right. It's a very short film, and the plot isn't really the point. It's a reason to move Aladeen from situation to situation, and is sufficient for that cause.
I guess the first thing to address is the hand-wringing over whether or not a viewer should be offended by this film. There are a number of reasons why you might be (or feel like you ought to be), but Cohen's made enough films that what you'd see in "The Dictator" shouldn't come as a surprise (or at least the level of the humor, there is certainly shock value here). But also, Cohen is a very aggressive comedian. Rather than taking the role of underdog, he tends to play delusional characters that behave badly because they don't know any better. A lot of the fun that comes from watching Cohen act is in his aggressively bad behavior; when he gets excited hearing about a "rape center," Aladeen doesn't exactly wink when suggesting that he and Zoey make a night of visiting there). So, rather than condemning Cohen for his comedic approach, I'd acknowledge that it's not for everyone, and suggest that if you're taken aback by anything in "The Dictator," for heaven's sake please never watch "Bruno."
And for a couple of reasons, "The Dictator" falls short of both "Borat" and "Bruno." For one thing, it's just not quite as funny. There are scenes here that are good, and Aladeen's pointed speech at the end of the film explaining how America behaves like a dictatorship (in so many words) is excellent. At the same time, just like the scene towards the end of "Bruno" involving two mixed martial artists stopping their match to make out in the cage in a southern town, the people who probably should understand the message are going to be put off by the method of delivery. The deliberately confrontational approach is a valid one, and Cohen is determined to mess with his audience at every turn. But rather than having the distance of being able to laugh at the people that Cohen is interacting with on-screen, many of the characters in "The Dictator" turn into straight-men for Aladeen to steam-roll. Even with comedically-risky segments, what's missing here that was present in Cohen's other starring roles is a sense of danger. There's no chance of a politician storming off, or of Cohen's character getting shot by a hunter that he's hitting on. I feel like I would have enjoyed this film a lot more if I hadn't seen anything else that Cohen's done, because this felt like a step backwards. That's not exactly fair to "The Dictator," but I couldn't put his previous work out of my mind as the bar to judge this film by.
My "three of five" ratings threshold is based on whether or not I'd want to re-watch a movie again. If not, the film has to be less than three stars. I enjoyed "The Dictator," but I suspect that once all the shock humor has been ingested, it wouldn't play nearly as well a second time around. So while this film does feature the greatest on-screen appearance Blake Griffin's ever made, I'd be surprised if I ever sat down to watch "The Dictator" again.
2.5 / 5 - Theatre