REVIEW: The Dictator [2012]

Score: 6/10 | ★ ★ ½

Rating: R | Runtime: 83 minutes | Release Date: May 16th, 2012 (USA)
Studio: Paramount Pictures
Director(s): Larry Charles
Writer(s): Sacha Baron Cohen, Alec Berg, David Mandel & Jeff Schaffer

“Where’s the trashcan?”

After starring in three films and on television in two countries by engaging unwitting audiences in a guerilla-style ambush of often cruel and lewd comedy proving he hadn’t a shred of modesty, Sacha Baron Cohen‘s days of anonymity have officially ended. Utilizing many of the same collaborators behind the scenes as his last few creative endeavors, The Dictator exists inside a fully scripted world because the Englishman’s antics have become too widely documented. Gone are the days when a ‘supreme beard’ could hide his identity from an American public somehow still too out-of-touch to recognize the ruse. A new dawn has broken in the comedian’s career and it may yet keep his penchant for method performance alive and relevant despite losing the unfiltered assault on the First World collective so many embraced—in part because they weren’t the ones being made into fools—in lieu of straight, fictionalized parody.

Praying on the almost universal disapproval in our Middle Eastern presence, Cohen creates a nondescript desert country called the Republic of Wadiya from which to disseminate his absurd rhetoric as though the goofy cousin of Saddam Hussein. A comical timeline of his youth is shown from his exit of the womb with fully-grown beard straight to his sweep of gold medals at his own Wadiya Games. Never without a smile or pointed index finger ready to wag in someone’s face or gesture to his neck for the murder of whomever he wants, the ‘last great’ dictator is on his way to acquiring weapons-grade enriched uranium so he can flip off the US once and for all. Admiral General Aladeen wants to rule the world from his perch—atop infinite oil reserves he refuses to sell—while his uncle Tamir (Ben Kingsley) hopes to wrestle away control and enter the Twenty-first Century.

The threat of airstrikes eventually forces the tyrant to visit the devil’s den of New York City and speak with the United Nations, giving Tamir the opportunity to replace him with the simpleton body-double under his control. Aligning himself with BP, Exxon, and the Chinese, Tamir poises Wadiya for democracy so he can reap riches at the detriment of those he’ll kill or displace so the Western world can suck them dry. But as Cohen is wont to do, he portrays the stupidity and hubris of America by having them let a newly shorn Aladeen escape and seek vengeance on those who threw him out. Enlisting a former scientist he sentenced to death two years prior, the Admiral General hatches a plan to infiltrate his imposter’s Constitution signing and steal back power to continue his evil ways. Unfortunately, however, tree-hugging feminist Zoë (Anna Faris) enters to warm his blackened heart.

Paltry in length at under 90-minutes, Larry Charles keeps the pace quick and the jokes from wearing out their welcome too much. Like a “Saturday Night Live” skit at times with overlong bits risking a turn from laughter to frustration, the filmmakers show a steady hand knowing when enough is enough. Screenwriters Cohen, Alec Berg, David Mandel, and Jeff Schaffer retain the obscene moments we’ve become familiar with in the comedian’s work while also ratcheting up the jabs at the ubiquitous. A crack about Mahmoud Ahmadinejad lands beautifully while Osama Bin Laden, Dick Cheney, and more find their way into Aladeen’s unfiltered candor. One new development impossible due to his previous need for secrecy is a slew of cameos from chameleon Fred Armisen, John C. Reilly, a hysterical Bobby Lee, and good sports Megan Fox and Edward Norton as themselves. Cohen can finally utilize this crowd-pleasing maneuver—a staple in contemporary comedy.

The plot itself is a simple one infused with obvious romance, but I don’t think anyone was expecting more. Where The Dictator excels is in the broad jokes we’ve still found ourselves confronting with trepidation despite how much time has passed since the World Trade Center came down. Watching Cohen and Jason Mantzoukas as Nadal—by far the best character and a perfect headstrong foil to the totalitarian imbecile at its center—laugh in Arabic on a helicopter tour with two American tourists, peppering in names like Bin Laden, 9-11, and Empire State Building, is priceless. Seeing Aladeen work in Faris’ grocery store earns chuckles too, both in his complete indifference initially and eventual Fascist regime change torturing coworkers into doing their jobs. We revel in his ability to do what we keep buried in our imaginations—like kicking children—and accept over-the-top forearm-deep child-birthing scenes with their inherently mild to extreme discomfort.

But hey, this is Sacha Baron Cohen, the guy who dumped Kim Jong Il’s fake ashes all over Ryan Seacrest before the 2012 Oscars ceremony. What more did you want? He pushes the envelope and we love it. I grossly over-rated Borat upon first viewing amongst a packed theatre in hysterics—because it doesn’t have much longevity despite having been a riot—and found Brüno to be a one-note joke showing exactly how two-dimensional Cohen can be. So it’s with a welcome smile that I say The Dictator exists between them as a humorous romp sending up topics we’ve still shied from truly making ‘fair game’. It may not beg for a theatrical viewing, but the chance to experience it with an audience engaged in communal laughter makes it an acceptable waste of money. Cohen may have a career sans his continual ability to dupe the world after all.

Oh, and don’t forget to be rewarded with a short gag reel during the end credits. The final innocent miscue from Adeel Akhtar—a veteran of terrorism spoofs with the very funny Four Lions under his belt—is worth the ticket price itself.

[1] Photo credit: Melinda Sue Gordon. The Dictator in THE DICTATOR, from Paramount Pictures. © 2012 Paramount Pictures. All Rights Reserved.
[2] Photo credit: Melinda Sue Gordon. Zoey (Anna Faris, far left) and The Dictator (center) in THE DICTATOR, from Paramount Pictures. © 2012 Paramount Pictures. All Rights Reserved.
[3] Photo credit: Melinda Sue Gordon. Tamir (Ben Kingsley, left) in THE DICTATOR, from Paramount Pictures. © 2012 Paramount Pictures. All Rights Reserved.

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