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The Dictator Has Lots Of Laughs And An Equal Amount Of Silence

The Dictator
Directed by Larry Charles
Written by Sacha Baron Cohen, Alec Berg, David Mandel, and Jeff Schaffer
Paramount, 2012

Probably due to the fact that Borat took people by surprise, and Bruno suffered from it, Sacha Baron Cohen goes for a straight-up comedy in this one, although the marketing for The Dictator has continued a lot of the Borat and Bruno-type shenanigans as Cohen refuses to be anything but that character in public.

The last time Cohen was behind a regular narrative comedy was Ali G Indahouse, where he played his HBO Ali G character in what amounted to straight-to-video kind of quality.  It also had its moments but was mostly terrible, so I wondered if Cohen could pull off this type of comedy without provoking people off the street.

Cohen here plays dictator Aladeen, ruling a North African country called Wadiya.  He’s everything we think dictators in the Middle East are: unnecessarily cruel, ordering executions on anyone who dares oppose him.  He’s racist and sexist.  And he wants nuclear missiles, but he fired (sent to execution) his last scientist for not making the missiles pointy enough.  He changed the dictionary so that Aladeen would mean almost everything, including “positive” and “negative.”  In light of UN orders for offensive strikes on Wadiya, Aladeen goes to New York with his right-hand, Tamir (Ben Kingsley) to make his case, and a dim double (also played by Cohen of course) whose only job is to get shot in the head if need be.

Aladeen is introduced to his security detail (an uncredited John C. Reilly), who is extremely open with his own racism (as you saw in the trailer, “I suggest you go see The Empire State Building before one of your cousins blows it up”).  Aladeen is whisked away in the night by his chief security to be tortured, but all that happens is his beard is ripped off, making him unrecognizable.  We see who’s behind the scheme: Tamir, who is going to use the double to make Wadiya a democracy so that they can sell oil reserves to wealthy interests in the US, UK, and China, including Mr. Lao (Bobby Lee, in a funny cameo).

Aladeen tries to get into the UN to no avail.  His remarks are overheard by hippie Whole Foods-esque manager Zoey (Anna Faris), who mistakes him for a formerly oppressed Wadiyan.  Aladeen changes his name (almost always a sign he sees in the background, and mushing the words together to sound just plausible enough) and tries to work at Zoey’s store, trying to find a way to get back to the UN and stop an historic changing-of-the-guard orchestrated by Tamir and his unwitting double.  But falling in love with Zoey could change all of that.

By the way, that portion of the movie, Aladeen’s falling in love with Zoey and “changing for the better,” is probably the sneakiest happy ending in the history of film.  I won’t get into what happens, it’s very funny, but this is satire on a really high level.  Most movies would go another direction, that same old tired, wrap everything in a neat little bow type of ending which would satisfy many, but be unrealistic.

Overall this has plenty of scenes that are funny, but man, when it’s not funny…it’s usually because Cohen and his writers go for an easy joke or something we’ve seen done a million times, and considering all the smart stuff we see in the movie, those jokes are especially flat.  But when the jokes skew towards racism and especially sexism, those jokes hit home really well.  And most of the outrageous stuff is great: watch out for the Most Ridiculous Tender Moment In The History Of Film in a scene involving the splendid character actress Kathryn Hahn.  There are also lots of sight gags that are good.

So in the end it’s not perfect, it should make most people laugh a scattered amount of times through its 83-minute runtime.  It can try your patience at times, but some of this stuff is worth it.


Comment from Jonathan
Time: May 17, 2012, 4:05 pm

I just don’t like Sacha Baron Cohen; just doesn’t work for me at all. I seem to be one of about two people that thought “Borat” was at times mediocre, and mostly terrible, and I only made it through about 10 minutes of “Bruno,” so won’t be seeing this. But to each his own.

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