May 17, 2012

The Dictator

The fate waiting to befall the makers of The Dictator

Grade: C +
Director: Larry Charles
Starring: Sacha Baron Cohen, Anna Faris and Ben Kingsley
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 1 hr. 23 min.

A satire in search for its satirical heart, The Dictator departs from Sacha Baron Cohen’s previous exercises in discomforting performance art, Borat and Bruno, playing exaggerated archetypes dropped in the middle of a gullible and already farcical world. Now that the world has caught on to Cohen’s meta shtick, he and director Larry Charles turn to a more traditional narrative structure for The Dictator. Well, as traditional as Cohen can get.

For four decades, the North African Republic of Wadiya has been ruled by Admiral General Aladeen (Cohen), a decadent, vainglorious, anti-American, anti-Semitic and all-around goofy Qaddafi-esque despot who flies in and pays Hollywood celebrities to bed (Megan Fox in the flesh, plus post-coital pics of Oprah, Halle Berry and Ahnuld), and wins track races by literally gunning down the competition. Aladeen also has unabashed designs on developing nuclear weapons…but only if the actual design of the missile is pointed and not rounded on top, in keeping with the instructional Daffy Duck cartoons he’s consulted.

Aladeen accepts an invitation to address the United Nations, but once on U.S. soil, a not-so-intelligent agent (John C. Reilly) kidnaps the world-famous autocrat and cuts off his beard. Once back on the streets of New York, however, the freshly-shorn Aladeen is suddenly just another anonymous foreigner, alternatively mistaken for either a political refugee or a terrorist in disguise.

If nothing else, The Dictator demonstrates that America has reached the point where a movie can foist gags referencing 9/11 without prompting universal uproar. Indeed, a mock Wii video game based on the massacre of Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics is more shocking. Whether any of that is in good taste is an entirely different question, but at least it’s topical and germane to the storyline. The real problem is that the bulk of Cohen’s comedy here is a pointless stream of scatology, vulgarities and race/religious-based sucker punches. I embrace Cohen’s desire to find in humor in discomfort, but scenes spun from defecation, masturbation and childbirth are base and unmoored from any sardonic bearing.

Against Cohen’s broad but disjointed shtick, Anna Faris steals the show as Zoey, the feminist vegan pacifist head of a Brooklyn food co-op that inexplicable hires Aladeen—masquerading under the name Allison Burgers—despite his penchant for insulting coworkers and customers alike.

It takes Cohen to nearly film’s end to fully realize any satirical potential with a backhanded undressing of American democracy, a diatribe that suggests Chaplin’s full-throated speech at the end of The Great Dictator (which similarly sought to deconstruct the Hitler mythos) if rewritten by Mel Brooks.

Otherwise, this Dictator rules with a crass and, even worse, unfocused fist. It’s a parody that subsists less on wit than, like its titular tyrant, kneecapping everyone in sight.

Neil Morris

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