Jun 01, 2012|
(USA) Comedy. Directed by Larry Charles. Starring Sacha Baron Cohen, Anna Faris, Ben Kingsley, Jason Mantzoukas. Category IIB. 83 minutes. Opens Jun 7.
Many movies jump the shark early, but none to the degree of “The Dictator.” If I have to recount the precise moment, it’s when its titular character poured an urn of ash onto Ryan Seacrest and said to him, “If people ask you who you’re wearing, tell them ‘Kim Jong-il.’” This hilarious incident happened at this year’s Oscars red carpet, months before the movie opened—and subsequently proved to be a disappointment.
After the outrageously wicked “Borat” and the merely passable “Bruno,” Sacha Baron Cohen and co-conspirator Larry Charles reteam once again, and the result unfortunately abides by the law of diminishing returns. The biopic starring Baron Cohen’s newest alter ego is not a mockumentary but a fully-scripted comedy, therefore lacks the “gotcha!” comic gold that characterized their previous collaborations’ on-the-fly filming style. Though the central character and topic of “The Dictator” provide a promising premise, most of the film’s potential is wasted in this sporadically funny but overall anarchic and uneven exercise.
If it’s any consolation, at least Baron Cohen, a fearless satirist with seemingly boundless merits and versatility, perfectly morphs into the role of Admiral General Aladeen, the Supreme Leader of fictional North African country Wadiya. Narcissistic, insecure and childish, Aladeen kills his time by having celebrity one-night stands, squanders his nation’s oil wealth on vanity projects, has a team of “virgin guards” and sentences anyone who opposes him to execution. His tyranny, reminiscent of Muammar Gaddafi and Saddam Hussein, is condemned by western society, while his nuclear ambitions, similar to those of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Kim Jong-il, are the reason he’s summoned to New York to address the UN.
However, just as the despot arrives in the Big Apple, he’s double-crossed by his uncle Tamir (Ben Kingsley), who plans to replace him with a moronic body double (also Baron Cohen) and have the imposter sign a new democratic constitution. Though the assassination falls through, Aladeen ends up without his signature beard and goes unrecognized by most people. He finds shelter at a vegan grocery shop run by left-wing activist Zoey (Anna Faris). At the “Death to Aladeen” restaurant, which is frequented by Wadiyan exiles and refugees, he stumbles into his former top scientist Nadal (Jason Mantzoukas), who agrees to help him regain power. The best moment of the movie comes when the suspicious-looking duo, on a tourist helicopter ride, talk in Arabic about Empire State Building, Statue of Liberty and “911-2012” (which is actually Aladeen’s new Porsches), and scare the living hell out of their co-passengers.
The script—co-written by Baron Cohen and three “Seinfeld” scribes—isn’t shy about getting its juice from racism and sexism. The Jewish star also riffs on anti-Semitism: in a memorable scene, Aladeen plays a custom-made Wii game in which he kills Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics. But the jokes here aren’t really as shocking or offensive—nor as hilarious—as “Borat” fans would expect. If the insults look halfhearted, it’s probably because the filmmaker decided to invest the other half of the heart into a weird and unlikely romance between Aladeen and Zoey. Against the dark and cynical political satire, the sweet rom-com vibe seems totally out of place and even partially destroys the movie’s momentum. It also mostly fails to humor: Aladeen calling Zoey a “lesbian hobbit”—hehe; Zoey teaching Aladeen how to masturbate—meh; the two sharing a romantic moment while having their hands stuck in an expectant mom’s birth canal—eww.
Completed with a game cast (including cameos by John C. Reilly, Megan Fox and Edward Norton) and an interesting score (pay attention to the Arabic renditions of “Everybody Hurts” and “Let’s Get It On”), “The Dictator” is basically several good sketches linked together by many bad and irrelevant ones. At the end, the movie does make a good point that US “democracy” isn’t that far away from dictatorship (national wealth owned by one percent of its people, invading foreign countries without valid reasons), but the message is delivered in an in-your-face manner that lacks subtlety and sophistication. Alas, “Borat” might be “so 2006,” but its ingenious comic heights are still unreached. While I remain a Baron Cohen fan, it would be nice to see something more refreshing from him in the future.