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Review: The Dictator

If Sacha Baron Cohen wasn’t your preferred brand of comedy before The Dictator, chances are he won’t be afterwards. Still, the film represents a friendlier Cohen than before. By removing himself from the off-the-cuff cinéma vérité-style work he’s known for and embracing scripted fare, The Dictator reveals itself as Cohen’s safest starring role to date – a film that takes very few chances and does little to separate itself from likeminded gross-out comedies. The danger that was once intrinsic with baiting ignorant schlubs in films like Borat and Bruno is now gone and with that, so too is a lot of the fun.

Which isn’t to say that The Dictator isn’t a funny film. The jokes are incredibly hit or miss, but the ones that do hit will pry a chuckle or two. There are also some phenomenal sight gags that left an impression on a writer who found humor in some of the more morbid turns the film takes. But ultimately The Dictator never rises up to Cohen’s earlier works. As a fan of Da Ali G Show and the films Cohen spun from it, I see a performer that’s tired but still content to give the audience what he thinks is expected of him.

This was inevitable of course. Cohen is too recognizable now, too prominent to slip into these characters and face off with racists, seduce Ron Paul or crash an orgy. Say what you will about Bruno, it takes balls to make tender love to another man in front of hundreds of red state rednecks filled with beer and expecting to see two dudes fight. That, to me, was always what I found brilliant about Cohen (and still do) – the bravery with which he’s willing to put himself in harm’s way to prove his point. It’s easy to bemoan the failings of the US in front of Ben Kingsley and a fictional UN (as happens here) but not so much when security is dragging you off the premises in the real world.

I think if Cohen and Larry Charles had their way, Cohen’s Admiral General Aladeen would have been unleashed similarly to past characters. Watching Baron Cohen selling the movie in character these past weeks goes a long way in supporting that theory. But with his celebrity status negating that, the filmmakers have cornered themselves. Inspired in part by novel Zabibah and the King (“written” by Saddam Hussein no less), The Dictator‘s Aladeen is every bit a monster as his contemporaries. He orders executions, enslaves women, and fists the fictional Republic of Wadiya with an iron glove.

Visiting New York to deliver a speech to the UN, Aladeen ends up getting outsed by his own people – having been replaced with a double by Aladeen’s number two (Tamir, Ben Kingsley) using the opportunity to conduct underhand oil dealings. With Aladeen unrecognizable (he loses his beard in a great extended cameo with John C. Reilly), he’s forced to live amongst us common folk. This new scenario reveals itself in the form of Zoey (Anna Faris), a hippie co-op owner / oddly cute hirsute who thinks Aladeen to be a refugee of his very own dictatorship.

Ironically, the funniest jokes have nothing to do with politics in the Middle East. Cohen and Charles go after too much low-hanging fruit here, nothing of substance leaves an impact because you’ve heard this all too many times now. The film’s biggest failing is that we as an audience have been sending our brothers and sisters to war for 11 years – as such, The Dictator is five years too late to be relevant in our political climate. The film tiptoes around Aladeen’s murderous tendancies, going so far as to vindicate him lest we think our antihero isn’t deserving of a happy ending. A backpedal in every sense of the word.

Thankfully, once Aladeen is removed from power much of the toothless political subtext is removed as well. The jokes that work best are the ones where Aladeen is experiencing not just our culture for the first time, but the depravity that poverty brings. He goes from sleeping on the finest silks to masturbating in a janitor’s closet, and the most rewarding parts are seeing how much he enjoys it. We see that Aladeen, too, was a repressed victim of his own dictatorship – a notion the film doesn’t get enough mileage out of. Even so, The Dictator will make you laugh. And for anyone who’s ever wanted to see a cellphone get lost inside a vagina (from the vagina’s perspective no less) then I’ve just given you something to look forward to.

The Dictator is an odd cross between Cohen works of old and Adam Sandler works of present, built around a single, out-there character. It has more in common with Little Nicky (another film that skittishly skirts around potentially-offensive subject matter) as it settles in and shies away from its own intentions. The end of the film feels like a major copout, essentially resetting Aladeen’s character progression. But in a film this stupid, that can be easily overlooked. The Dictator might have tried to be a blazing satire on current affairs, but it ends up being a mildly entertaining distraction from the very issues it’s trying to call to light.

★★★

Out of a Possible 5 Stars

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