The Dictator (2012)
The Dictator is about a tyrannical…wait for it…dictator from the fictional North African, oil-rich country of Wadiya. He is the law, he loves oppressing his people, he’s developing a nuclear program for “research purposes only” – he’s like Putin, Gadaffi, and Ahmadinejad all rolled into one, only hairier. Aside from the loneliness that his doubles tennis partner Kim Jong-Il knew all too well, life is good for Admiral General Aladeen…until the UN threatens to take military action against him. So he heads off to New York City to address their concerns in person, but then gets kidnapped and stripped of his beard/power by his jealous uncle. With nowhere to go and no one to turn to, he gets taken under the wing of a tree-hugging health food store owner and slowly comes to realize the error of his ways, all while trying to regain his former glory with the help of a nuclear scientist he thought he killed.
So, after taking on racist hillbillies and he-man women-hating frat jocks, then getting Paula Abdul to use day laborers as La-Z-Boys, Sacha Baron Cohen has finally made the leap to war criminals, terrorists, and all the crazy hijinks that go with them. Regardless of your thoughts on the subject matter, let’s not kid ourselves, it was only a matter of time. Nothing is sacred for Sacha Baron Cohen.
It’s his first fully-scripted movie since Ali G Indahouse that doesn’t rely on the reactions of others to make us all laugh, and as much as it sometimes works, it almost makes you wish that Borat never happened. See, the beauty of Borat (and Da’ Ali G Show for that matter) was that nobody knew it was Sacha Baron Cohen behind the mustache and mankini, and even if the disguise failed, it wouldn’t matter since no one knew who the hell Sacha Baron Cohen was anyway. Thanks to the power of anonymity, we got one of the funniest movies (and shows) of the past decade that was shamelessly politically incorrect and put a mirror up to some of the more embarrassingly intolerant turds that America had to offer. But no thanks whatsoever to the powers of overnight fame, not even the makeup crew from The Walking Dead could hide Cohen’s 6’3″ frame from doing what he does best: letting people make asses of themselves.
And things just haven’t been the same since.
Even as someone who liked Bruno more than most (come on, that focus group scene was unreal), a key factor to Cohen’s success had been lost with no chance of recovery outside of filming in an Amish community. So this is the format we’re left with, and this movie suffers for it as a result. Luckily, Cohen has some writing talent, but I still can’t help but feel bad for the guy. Imagine if you were a stand-up comedian, someone who makes a habit of killing it on the nightly, but then a day comes when you realize you can only do a fraction of your act because the crowd knows how all your best joke are gonna end. The only option is to keep on trucking and try something new, and even though the crowd’s still laughing, you know as well as they do that it just doesn’t compare to the old stuff. It’s not like Cohen’s fallen on hard times or anything, but it still sucks.
Overall, this was a weird experience for me. I laughed a couple times, I smiled through most of it, and it sounded like the rest of the theater were having themselves a hootenanny from beginning to end. But all the while, I couldn’t shake the feeling that it could have been so much more. With the state of the world being what it is, a world where someone like Bashar Hafez al-Assad can rule over Syria, doing whatever evil shit he pleases without so much as a slap on the wrist, you’d think this material would write itself. Sometimes it does, like when a powerless Aladeen delivers a baby, then asks for a trashcan when he realizes it’s a girl. Unfortunately though, that truly is just some of time. Most of the time is spent on running gags that weren’t funny the first time (e.g.: making up fake, Arabic-sounding words; highlighting all the ways Anna Faris’ physical appearance disgusts Aladeen; Aladeen ordering people to be executed; etc.), and the rest felt like randomness for the sake of randomness, and shock for the sake of shock.
And the worst part is, all the best scenes are in the trailer. Yes, it is one of those situations, and it is a bummer.
I don’t know, it’d be one thing if it the humor was smarter or didn’t settle for so many cheap, gross-out yuks, but it never quite gets there. It tries to about five minutes before the end credits when Cohen gets on a soapbox and starts listing the ways that America is just as much of a dictatorship as Wadiya, only it comes way too suddenly and way too late to come off as anything but preachy. Not trying to say that this is some pretty base shit from beginning to end, it’s just that Cohen can do better. And maybe it’s just me, but it’s still too soon to be using 9/11 as a punchline.
It occurs to me that this review might sound like a borderline eulogy for the guy, but I can’t help it, and it’s a fucking shame. Folks, this is how it all starts. This is the road that led Adam Sandler to Grown Ups. His performance is fine, it’s just overdone and nothing special; Anna Faris is sold short as the token love interest/comedic punching bag; Ben Kingsley’s in it for some reason; and so are John C. Reilly and Megan Fox briefly. The funniest guy here is actually Jason Mantzoukas as Aladeen’s former nuclear scientist, but I don’t think anyone’s seeing this thing for Jason Mantzoukas (no offense to the Mantzoukas family, who should be very proud). I mean, no one’s bad here, but no one’s really good though either.
All the same, I was kind of surprised at how moderately excited I was to see The Dictator. I wasn’t for a while there, mainly because I knew deep down that I was setting myself up for disappointment, although after the Seacrest stunt, I felt the least I could do was give Cohen 13 bucks as a high-ten of sorts. It’s not without its laughs, and I’d probably give that Verdict a boost if Cohen hadn’t set the bar so high for himself, but truth be told, I got a bigger kick out of the three-minute trailer for Ted than I did the 83 minutes that followed.
And I don’t even like Family Guy.