Dear DictatorReviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 03/16/18 10:48:27
Michael Caine has been a bona-fide movie star for more than a half-century and if he ever decides to formally retire from his chosen profession, it will inspire an outpouring of love and affection tinged with no small amount of regret from film fans around the world over the possibility of a cinematic world without him, to be immediately followed by arguments among those very same fans about which of the dozens of roles he has played on the screen were the best. Put it this way, one could strike the seven films that he has made in recent years with Christopher Nolan—the three “Dark Knight” movies, “The Prestige,” “Inception,” “Interstellar” and a vocal cameo in “Dunkirk”—the films that earned him his two Supporting Actor Oscars, “Hannah and Her Sisters” and “The Cider House Rules” and the four that earned him Best Actor nominations (“Alfie,” “Sleuth,” “Educating Rita” and “The Quiet American”) from consideration completely and it would still be difficult to create a Top 10 list of his most notable performances without leaving a lot of worthy ones by the wayside. (That said, anyone who attempts such a thing and manages to overlook his underrated turns in “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” and “Blood and Wine” and his masterful work in “Dressed to Kill” do so at their peril.)At the same time, it must be said that Caine has also chalked up more than his share of clinkers over the years, something that he himself has readily admitted to in the past, usually claiming that he had forgotten the movie but remembered the house the paychecks from them went on to buy. There was a period of time during the Seventies and Eighties, in fact, when his crap detector seemed to be almost permanently on the blink as he turned up in such gumdrops as “The Swarm,” “Beyond the Poseidon Adventure,” “The Island,” “”The Hand,” “Victory,” “Blame It on Rio” and the legendarily awful “Jaws: The Revenge,” the film that he was too busy shooting to attend the Oscars the year that he won for “Hannah and Her Sisters.” I mention these clinkers—and believe me, there are plenty more—not to be mean or snippy in any way. What I am trying to do is illustrate the fact that I am more than familiar with the depths that a Michael Caine film can sink to so that when I tell you that his latest project, “Dear Dictator,” may well indeed the single most wretched thing that he has ever been involved with as an actor, you will know that I am not merely indulging in hyperbole. With perhaps the exception of “Blame It on Rio” (which you may recall, was a creepy sex comedy in which he played a middle-aged man who found himself sleeping with his best friend’s teenaged sexpot daughter during a Rio holiday, I cannot readily think of another entry in his filmography as dubious in conception and ghastly in execution as this one.
Tatiana Mills (Odeya Rush) is a high school sophomore in the suburbs of Georgia and self-professed rebel with a punk attitude and the usual litany of troubles—the mean girls at her high school (don’t ask)) torment her for her weird taste in fashion and music, the nice and devoutly Christian classmate that she jams with in her garage (again, don’t ask) doesn’t seem to notice her crush on him and her single mother (Katie Holmes) is constantly on her case when she isn’t carrying on an affair with the married dentist (Seth Green) for whom she works. Given an assignment by her dopey social studies teacher (Jason Biggs) to write a letter to a notable individual, she elects to send hers to General Anton Vincent (Caine), the dictator of an unnamed Caribbean nation who is obviously meant to suggest Castro, right down, I fear, to the straggly beard. For reasons that boggle the mind, General Vincent responds and the two begin an actual correspondence in which they commiserate with each other about their enemies—those jerks in homeroom in her case and those pesky rebels trying to overthrow the government and instill free elections in his.
Vincent’s regime is eventually overthrown by US-backed forces and while he manages to escape, he instantly becomes one of the most wanted men in the world. Somehow, he manages to sneak his way into the U.S. without notice (still wearing that easily recognizable beard, mind you) and turns up at Tatiana’s house. She agrees to hide him in the garage under the nose of her oblivious mother and the two decide to help each other fulfill their mutual dreams of upsetting the status quo by any means necessary. She will help him get his messages out to his still-loyal followers so that they can formulate plans to retake the country and put him back in charge and he will help her utilize the classic methods of fomenting revolution to usurp the slushies so that she can rule the school and get the cute-but-dim boy for herself. Mom, for her part, does eventually discover Vincent’s presence in her house but proves to be surprisingly chill over discovering a brutal dictator in her teen daughter’s bedroom once he proves his worth by fixing the garage door and making a lovely dinner out of a peanut butter cup mole sauce and a Subway sandwich (a bit of product placement that I have to assume was purchased by Jersey Mikes). Eventually, conflict arrives when Tatiana finally goes on Wikipedia and discovers to her horror the lengths that her pen pal will go to in order to achieve his ends, including the torture and murder of his political enemies and, even worse, forwarding a sex tape involving that cute-but-dim boy to all their classmates.
To be scrupulously fair, the basic elements at the center of “Dear Dictator” are not entirely unpromising at first glance. Granted, dictators may not sound especially humorous in theory but they have inspired a number of great comedies over the years, ranging from what I consider to be the funniest film ever made, the Marx Brothers masterpiece “Duck Soup” to classics like “The Great Dictator” and “To Be or Not to Be” to Woody Allen’s “Bananas,” a film that even Timothee Chalamet might find himself laughing at in parts. There have also been a number of good and often very funny films in which the upheavals of the social and power structures of a typical high school have served as metaphors for the world at large, including “Massacre at Central High,” “Heathers,” “Mean Girls” and “Election,” a film that was incredibly prescient when it came out in 1999 and has only grown more and more relevant in the years since its release. Of course, those films succeeded because they took those basic elements and made use of them that was smart, funny and even a bit insightful at times and that is why they remain as fresh and valuable today as they did when they first came out.
Based on the available evidence, I have no idea what initial impulse that the writing and directing team of Lisa Addario and Joe Syracuse had when they initially set out to make “Dear Dictator.” If I had to guess, I would surmise that they were attempting to create a film that would suggest what might have resulted if someone tried to fuse “Mean Girls” (which is specifically name-checked) with the cheerfully anarchistic early films of Alex Cox like “Repo Man” and “Walker” that were all the more radical because they were somehow financed and released by Universal Pictures, one of the most conservative studios around in the 1980s. This might have been interesting if the film had a legitimately rebellious spirit to it but other than a few old punk songs on the soundtrack and Tatiana’s “edgy” wardrobe, the film is basically the cinematic equivalent of the Spencer’s Gifts store that may have once inhabited your local mall—at first glance, it may seem wild and gleefully reckless but once you get inside and get past the music and fashion, you quickly realize that it is just trying to sell you the same old crap.
Take the utterly insulting way in which the film handles the character of Tatiana and how she comes to realize the potential cost of revolution. In a smart movie, she might have been someone who knew the truth about Vincent and what he was capable of doing to achieve his ends and was able to accept them on an intellectual basis, only to come to really that things are not as cut-and-dried and easy to dismiss when she sees those tactics and their results playing out in front of her eyes within the context of her school. Instead, they make her into a moron who somehow has remained ignorant of Vincent’s crimes against his people until she finally goes online and discovers to her horror and amazement that the dictator reviled around the world has a few black marks on his record. This just makes her seem like a malleable dummy who will willingly swallow anything that she sees or hears without a moment’s hesitation, right up to Vincent’s patronizing final speech to her in which she is touched as he emptily goes on about being inspired by her spirit and whatnot. As a result, the whole film ends up suggesting that any high schooler who espouses any sort of social or political position that is even slightly outside of the status quo is just confused and will hopefully learn to straighten up and fly right. Put it this way—if you are one of those people who likes to go on Twitter and lambaste the kids from Parkland as puppets of the left who have not earned the right to speak out about gun control and who should just shut up and let the adults “handle” things, this is probably the movie for you.
Even if you take away the hideous politics at play here, “Dear Dictator” is still a remarkably terrible movie in so many ways. All of the characters on the display run the gamut from moronic to despicable—it is impossible to generate any sense of rooting interest for any of them for even a moment. The screenplay is also pretty atrocious—none of it makes a lick of sense even by the often elastic boundaries that comedies are afforded and there are far too many moments in which characters are required to act like idiots for no other reason that to keep the flimsy narrative from completely collapsing. (The stuff involving cute-but-dim boy’s sex tape is especially cringe-inducing.) And since this is supposed to be a brave and edgy comedy, it contains any number of moments that cross the line from the comedic to the simply appalling without ever bother to be funny as well. Here is just a sampling of the wacky sights on display here.
While trying to stir up trouble with the slushies while in line at the cafeteria, Tatiana reaches down into her pants to extract her in-use tampon and dangles it in front of the head meanie before throwing it in her face. Somehow, this reverse-“Carrie” move make her a hero among the student body.
After finding Tatiana’s social studies teacher lurking about outside her house one night (again, don’t ask), Vincent grabs him and drags him into the garage and proceeds to waterboard him with a gallon of milk.
Numerous displays of the aforementioned foot fetish of the Seth Green character. This is not to say that a foot fetish is a bad thing but the way that it is presented here would give even Quentin Tarantino pause.
At one point, Vincent fries some bananas for dinner. (Okay, this is more of a problem specific to me since I find just the sight of a banana to be gorge-inducing, but I figured it still warranted mentioning.
The closest that the film ever gets to a moment that is funny and/or brave comes when Vincent, having already shaved off his beard, dons a cheesy toupee and mustache in order to go out in public and is commended for his resemblance to a key character from “Blue Velvet.” This is funny because Vincent does bear a striking resemblance to this character and it is brave because for people watching “Dear Dictator” at home, which will probably be the vast majority of those insane enough to give it a look, the mention of a flat-out masterpiece like “Blue Velvet” might inspire most of them to shut off the film and put it on instead. (If nothing else, “Blue Velvet” is certainly funnier than anything on display here.)
The big question that will loom in the minds of anyone unfortunate enough to encounter “Dear Dictator,” of course, is why Michael Caine, even considering his occasional lack of judgement in terms of script selection, would choose to lend his talents to something so undeserving of them. At least with those flops, you can sort of rationalize what might have caused him to sign on—“Blame It on Rio” may be one of the most distasteful movies ever made but a well-paid working vacation in Rio is not something to sneer at—but there does not seem to be anything along those lines here. My best guess is that playing Vincent allowed him to do the kind of wild-and-crazy role that he really hasn’t done too much of in his career. He certainly throws himself into the part but the material is so sad and inept that to see him flailing about in his attempts to somehow pull it off are maybe the most depressing thing found in a film billed as a comedy since Robert De Niro turned up in “Dirty Grandpa.” Odeya Rush was entertaining in a supporting role as the school mean girl in “Lady Bird” but comes across here as more intolerable than rebellious. That said, she comes off better than Katie Holmes, whose appearance as Tatiana’s mother is almost as total of a waste of her talents as Caine’s. In patently unnecessary supporting parts, Seth Green and Jason Biggs pretty much embarrass themselves throughout.Believe me, I did not intend to spend so much time and effort in writing so many words on a film that virtually none of you have heard of and which most of you will never see. I have seen plenty of shabby B-movies featuring beloved actors embarrassing themselves and have more or less grown inured to such sights. And yet, something about “Dear Dictator” really rubbed me the wrong way. As comedy, it is utterly devoid of laughs. As social commentary, it is audacious only in how utterly condescending it ultimately proves to be. As a star vehicle for the comedy stylings of Michael Caine, it is so grotesque that once it finally comes to its conclusion, most people will want to begin a recovery process involving lots of eyewash and a copy of “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.” If he is still doing films this bad in order to make house payments, he may want to consider downsizing into a condo in order to spare everyone any future embarrassment.
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