I laughed at ‘The Dictator’ more than I’d care to admit. More a stretched out Saturday Night Live sketch or Adam Sandler high concept comedy than anything that star/co-writer Sacha Baron Cohen and director Larry Charles have tackled before, this is far from a good movie, but it does manage to be a reasonably entertaining one. Like some of Sandler’s recent outings, there’s very little in the way of quality craftsmanship and the jokes are hardly new ones, but they manage to elicit more chuckles and belly laughs than they should. Now, ‘The Dictator’ once or twice manages to do some interesting things (and end speech satirically comparing democracy to a dictatorship isn’t just funny, but surprisingly biting and right on the money), but most of the time they go for the easy jokes. The hit to miss ratio is pretty good, but the ones that miss, well, they miss pretty badly. Baron Cohen is a fearless performer, and his straight up chutzpah is hard not to admire, but I’m still waiting for him to put it all together. I wasn’t as big a fan of ‘Borat’ as most, though I still found it funny, and ‘Bruno’ was disappointing however you slice it, so this is another mixed bag for the comedian. This time around, it’s a narrative instead of a mockumentary, and honestly, I’m not sure which suits him better as of yet. Personally, I prefer his more subdued work in other films, but that’s just me. On its own terms, ‘The Dictator’ is entertaining, it’s just not especially good. If that’s an odd combination to you, well…you’re not alone there.
Ruling the fictional nation of Wadiya with an iron/comical fist is Major General Aladeen (Baron Cohen). A tyrant with the attention of the world due to his huge stocks of oil and seeming determination to create a nuclear weapon, Aladeen is also a jokester and an overall nut. On the advice of his right hand man Tamir (Ben Kingsley), Aladeen decides to come to America and give a speech before the United Nations. When he gets to New York, he’s double crossed by Tamir and left for dead, as a lookalike (also Baron Cohen) is placed in power. Aladeen must make sure Tamir doesn’t have the double sign a new Wadiyan Constitution a few days from then, and in order to do that he needs access to the hotel it’s taking place in. He finds that when an activist store owner named Zoey (Anna Faris) takes him in. While he plots revenge and a re-emergence into power, Aladeen finds himself falling for this woman, and of course this makes him question everything.
Sacha Baron Cohen is having a ball here, but it doesn’t exactly translate into an amazing performance. It really looks like he’s doing an SNL bit, just stretched out to 80 minutes long. He’s committed to the role though, and that’s something, it’s just not a taxing performance. Ben Kingsley completely phones in his performance, further giving evidence to the claim that Kingsley will seemingly slum it at will. Anna Faris is effective as the love interest, but severely under-utilized. The most entertaining performance actually comes from Jason Mantzoukas as Aladeen’s nuclear program head and co-hort in stopping the Constitution signing. The funniest moments usually involve Baron Cohen and Mantzoukas. Also on hand for cameos are John C. Reilly, Chris Parnell, Horatio Sanz, Joey Slotnik, Fred Melamed, Chris Elliot, Kevin Corrigan, Fred Armisen, Kathryn Hahn, as well as both Megan Fox and Edward Norton playing themselves. There’s fun in watching Sacha Baron Cohen run around, but it’s not especially a great performance overall.
Larry Charles seems ill suited to narrative comedy direction, never quite doing anything interesting with the camera. Personally, I’m partial to his documentary with Bill Maher ‘Religulous’, but he’s never especially wowed me. Here he just seems to go through the motions, unlike how we directed ‘Borat’ and ‘Bruno’. With a chance to do more as a director, he settles on doing less instead. As for the script, Baron Cohen co-wrote it with Alec Berg, David Mandel (of the ‘Clerks’ animated series fame), and Jeff Schaffer, and it’s a hodgepodge of lowbrow humor. As mentioned above, a surprising amount of the jokes hit their mark, but some of them sail wide of the goal. It’s the Mel Brooks school of comedy, and while they come nowhere near that master’s quality of work, this is a funnier screenplay than I was expecting.
‘The Dictator’ is a silly film that honestly played better the second time I saw it (late at night on a weekday) as opposed to the first time. It should likely play even better at home, which may lead to many waiting for DVD on this one, but if you just want to laugh, this is a funny enough time at the movies. Quality-wise, it’s somewhat lacking, but it may actually be one of the 5 funniest films of 2012 so far. If that’s your priority, then you’ll be pleased. If you want more from your film, you’ll probably be let down by this admittedly forgettable flick. The choice is yours though, so choose wisely…
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Tags: Anna Faris, ben kingsley, John C. Reilly, Larry Charles, sacha baron cohen, The Dictator