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Overall Rating

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4 reviews, 6 user ratings

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Dictator, The
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by Peter Sobczynski

"Duck This"
2 stars

Shock comedian Sacha Baron Cohen may have exhausted his collection of tried-and-true characters that he developed on his acclaimed "Da Ali G Show" and brought to the big screen with varying results in such vehicles as the barely remembered "Ali G Indahouse ," the amusing-if-overrated international smash "Borat" and the simply awful "Bruno" but to judge from his latest effort, "The Dictator," he hasn't retired either his basic schtick or, in several circumstances, the jokes themselves. Like his earlier efforts, this is a film that wants to mine laughs from having its lead character saying and doing things that would have been unthinkable in a major motion picture only a few years ago and mine controversy from the outrage that the material might inspire from more sensitive quarters. However, based on the extremely uneven end results here, Cohen may want to seriously considering mixing things up for his next project because his once-anarchistic approach has grown increasingly stiff and formulaic over time and while there are still some very funny moments here and there, "The Dictator" contains more than a whiff of equal parts deja vu and desperation throughout and even though it clocks in at only an anemic and well-padded 75 minutes before the end credits begin rolling, even Cohen's biggest supporters may find themselves checking their watches here and there trying to figure out how much longer it has to go.

Eschewing the documentary-like format of "Borat" and "Bruno" that found Cohen acting opposite people who allegedly did not know that he was playing a character or that they were in a movie, "The Dictator" utilizes a more conventional narrative framework to show us the misadventures of Cohen's latest character creation, General Haffaz Alladeen, the cruel despot of Wadiya, a fictional North African country sitting atop countless billions in untapped oil reserves. By all accounts, Alladeen is a madman--he has replaced over 100 words and phrases of the language with his own last name (making Wadiya the last place in the world where one would want to get an AIDS test), he orders the execution of underlings for the most minute of infractions and is currently putting the final touches on a nuclear weapons program that he hopes will permanently shift the balance of power in the world as a result. Alas, his missile test is even less effective than the one recently held in North Korea (assuming that wasn't just one more piece of the film's elaborate publicity campaign, of course) and it winds up bringing the heat of the world upon Wadiya that will not relent until Alladeen agrees to go to New York and address an assembly at the United Nations. For Alladeen, this is the perfect opportunity to rattle his saber in the face of his enemies on their home turf and presumably catch a show or two. For Tamir (Ben Kingsley), who is Alladeen's aide-de-camp/uncle/rightful heir to the throne, the trip is a perfect opportunity to kill Alladeen and replace him with an easily manipulated lookalike (Cohen again) who will ratify a new constitution for Wadiya that will open up its oil holding to the highest bidder and earn Tamir billions in the process. (This is a little more time-consuming but hopefully he can squeeze in a show as well.)

The attempted coup has mixed results--Alladeen is not killed but he is believed to be dead and the plan to replace him goes as scheduled. When the real Alladeen learns what Tamir has planned for Wadiya, he tries to expose the plot but now that he lacks the Soggy Bottom Boys-style beard that has been his trademark, no one recognizes him and he is mistaken for just another foreigner. While trying to figure out a way to regain power in time to prevent the signing of the new constitution, Alladeen enlists the aid of Zoey (Anna Faris), the head of a local food co-op of such left-leaning persuasions that it makes Whole Foods seem like a product of the Third Reich, to help him get into the hotel where the ersatz dictator is staying. Before that can happen, however, Alladeen whips the store into shape using some of his time-tested techniques for getting results, discovers a restaurant in the Little Wadiya section of New York that appears to be populated entirely by people that he thought he had executed and even finds himself possibly falling in love for the first time with Zoey, even though seemingly every other sentence out of his mouth is a cruel insult aimed directly at her.

In much the same way that the allegedly original schtick that Cohen employed in both "Borat" and "Bruno" was little more than a more vulgar variation of the comedic sensibility that the infinitely funnier and more incisive Andy Kaufman found himself publicly crucified for two decades earlier, "The Dictator" is a film that, despite the claims to its uniqueness, owes much of its existence to two of the most famous comedy films ever made--the Marx Brothers classic "Duck Soup" (1933) and Charlie Chaplin's landmark "The Great Dictator." Like "The Dictator," both of those films shared the idea of having a comedian portraying the tyrannical leader of a country but unlike "The Dictator," they both used the conceit as leaping-off points for films that contained both enormous laughs and genuine political insight. "Duck Soup," for example, premiered at the height of the Great Depression and, by offering up the sight of Groucho Marx running roughshod over a country that was stupid enough to put him in charge in the first place (as a concession to the wealthy one-percenter lending the place $20 million to save it from bankruptcy), offered barbed criticism of countries who blithely install leaders who are actively working against their interests and government who lead their citizens into futile wars for no good reason. "The Great Dictator," on the other hand, was a conscious swipe at the madness of Adolph Hitler and the Third Reich that took time at the end to switch into a more serious mode to denounce the oncoming waves of fascism and those who were deliberately ignoring its onrush--a brave move since this was done before America had entered the war and many were perfectly willing to sit it out and let Europe fend for itself.

Going into "The Dictator," I was hoping that Cohen might follow in the footsteps of these classics and use the film as a way of exploring the chaos and insanity of the current geopolitical situation. After a few minutes, however, it becomes perfectly clear that while Cohen and director Larry Charles has switched things up a little bit by telling the story in a more straightforward narrative structure, little else has changed here. As with their previous films, most of the humor comes from hearing Cohen saying something shocking and borderline offensive--usually involving racist, sexist or anti-semitic commentary--so that one half of the audience can nod their heads and mutter "How ironic. . ." and the other can nod their heads and mutter "How true. . ." Now I am not an especially sensitive viewer and I do not necessarily object to such material on its surface--indeed, some of the individual lines here and there are quite funny. My problem is that there is precious little difference between the things said here and the similar jokes on display in "Borat" and "Bruno" and there are times when the screenplay feels more like a repository for lost one-liners from those films than a fully-formed storyline with its own concerns. With the exception of Alladeen's nicely ironic climactic speech--which plays as a sly inversion of Chaplin's final speech in "The Great Dictator"--there is precious little political nuance or commentary on display and since it is at least to some degree posing as a political satire, that absence is hard to overlook. Of course, Cohen may have looked over the dismal box-office fates of straightforward political satires (including "Duck Soup" and "The Great Dictator," neither of which did particularly well on their initial releases) and decided that sticking with the same-old same-old was a better gamble from a financial standpoint but while that may be true, it is a formula that has definitely begun to wear thin in his hands.

Even Cohen himself seems to be conceding that this comedic approach is reaping fewer benefits because there are long stretches where "The Dictator" seemingly abandons its basic premise entirely in order to present a bunch of extended comedic set-pieces that have little to do with the story itself and which seem to have been dragged in so as to provide some easy barf-bag laughs and to extend the running time. There is, for example, one sequence in which he and an associate sneak into the funeral of an elderly African-American community leader in order to remove his Alladeen-like beard so that he can look more like himself and are forced to gruesomely improvise when their initial plan falls through--to be fair, some of this is kind of funny in a sick way (especially the pay-off) but certainly could have been presented in a shorter manner. However, there is another, equally long bit in which Alladeen is forced to help deliver a baby--completely with several shots taken in utero--that drags on so terribly and with so little point or comedic punch that it isn't so much bad as baffling. There are also moments when, Alladeen help us, that I fear we are meant to actually care about the relationship between Alladeen and Zoey in scenes that are interesting only because they offer further proof that Anna Faris is perhaps the best sport in Hollywood even if they seem largely incapable, with the single exception of "The House Bunny," of creating a vehicle perfectly suited for her unique combination of genuine sex appeal and crack comic timing. As for the bit where Alladeen finds himself dangling from a wire hanging between two buildings and forced to drop some weigh tin the most icky manner possible, the less said the better except to note that back in the good old days, Groucho and Chaplin somehow managed to get their points across without taking an on-screen dumping or displaying their junk for all to see.

"The Dictator" is not a particularly inspired comedy but if I am to be fair, I must note that there are a few moments here and there where I did find myself laughing out loud, even though the fact that I can barely remember what any of them were only a couple of days later may say something about how memorable they really are. If you have seen the trailers, you know that there is a bit in which sexpot Megan Fox turns up as herself for a bit in which she is paid a fortune to come to Waadeya to have sex with Alladeen. That joke is pretty funny (indeed, it is arguably the single most entertaining thing that Fox has done on screen to date) but it manages to actually top itself when we get a glimpse of Alladeen's wall of fame commemorating the other well-known visitors to his boudoir. (This bit also offers an amusing if presumably inadvertent explanation for that new Katy Perry video as well.) Some of the one-liners tossed off here and there get big laughs, partly because they are actually funny and partly because of the impudent brashness with which they have been presented. And while I have pretty much admitted that I do not find Sacha Baron Cohen to be particularly amusing in his self-generated vehicles for the most part, I must confess to a certain admiration with the way that he throws himself into his roles and gleefully taking part in the kind of material that most stars hire entire platoons of personnel to keep as far away from them as humanly possible.

"The Dictator" is infinitely funnier that the lazy and obnoxious "Bruno" and its conventional structure might allow it to hold up slightly better in the long run than "Borat," a film that really does not hold up especially well on multiple viewings. For those who have sparked to Cohen's previous excursions, my guess is that you will probably enjoy it more than I did because of the essential familiarity of the material. For everyone else, it will prove to be a fitfully amusing work with a few big laughs and a fe more smaller ones surrounded by material that is nowhere near as bold, daring or creatively offensive as it clearly thinks it is. In other words, "The Dictator is Alladeen--take from that what you will.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=23145&reviewer=389
originally posted: 05/14/12 21:24:32
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User Comments

1/04/13 tori cute and rather sweet! 4 stars
9/09/12 mr.mike More hits than misses. 4 stars
8/24/12 The Taitor Mildly entertaing with number of small laughs, rental at best 3 stars
6/01/12 Monday Morning Such an annoying PR campaign I'm making a point NOT to see this movie. 4 stars
5/21/12 Cinema spy Really disappointing 1 stars
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  16-May-2012 (R)
  DVD: 21-Aug-2012


  DVD: 21-Aug-2012

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