Dictator, The (2012)

Starring: Sacha Baron Cohen, Anna Faris, Ben Kingsley, Jason Mantzoukas, John C. Reilly, Bobby Lee, Sayed Badreya, Aasif Mandvi, Mark Campbell, Gad Elmaleh, Fred Armisen, Megan Fox, Edward Norton, Chris Elliott, Chris Parnell, J.B. Smoove, Kathryn Hahn, Nasim Pedrad, Garry Shandling.

Director: Larry Charles
Rating: R/Unrated (for for strong crude and sexual content, brief male nudity, language and some violent images.)
Running Time: 83 Minutes (Theatrical) / 98 Minutes (Unrated Director’s Cut)
Release Date: May 16, 2012
Home Video Release Date: August 21, 2012
North American Box Office: $59.7 Million

Four By Two Films and Paramount Pictures.

Written by: Sacha Baron Cohen, Alec Berg, David Mandel, and Jeff Schaffer.
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1/2 (out of 5 stars)

From Ali G to Borat to Bruno, and now to General Aladeen of Wadiya, Sacha Baron Cohen consistently concocts and creates characters who leave you unsettled, nervous, and either offended or laughing hysterically.  Cohen’s mockumentary films, the Oscar-nominated Borat… and the disarmingly polarizing Bruno, found Cohen balancing scripted and unscripted moments together in a blended stew of uncomfortable, reality-television influenced entertainment.  Moving away from his bread-and-butter, The Dictator is a more conventional film for the renegade comedian and is told in a more traditional style, dropping all the mockumentary nonsense that has honestly wore thin in recent years.

Essentially The Dictator is a fairly commonplace story of a stranger in a strange land, told before in many different incarnations.  The twist of sorts is that General Aladeen is visiting New York City with a delegation and entourage from his home country to give an anti-American speech at the United Nations.  Soon after arriving, Aladeen is first abducted by a nefarious hitman (John C. Reilly), and the true loyalties of his uncle Tamir (Ben Kingsley) are realized when an imposter (also played by Cohen) steps in for the real General.  As the real Aladeen attempts to seize back control of his country back on American soil, he meets and falls in love with a progressive liberal activist named Zoey (Anna Faris).  As Aladeen tries to learn what life is like in a “free” culture, Zoey soon realizes that the man she knows as Alison Burgers (the joke is far too strained to bother with), may not be the down-on-his-luck guy she thinks he is after all and soon, she finds herself caught up in something far bigger than she could have ever anticipated.

The Dictator is Cohen’s attempt to have the best of both worlds.  Mixing outlandish and gregarious comedy bits, with some acute and spot on political satire, The Dictator is nonetheless at odds with itself.  As General Aladeen, Cohen is completely committed and dedicated to playing the narcissistic and misogynistic leader of this mythical North African country of Wadiya, but his screenplay, co-authored with Alec Berg, Jeff Schaffer, and David Mandel, forces far too many jokes and gags for the film to have the consistency it needs to succeed.  When the laughs falter, the punch of the political satire lessens its impact as well, and the overall effectiveness is stunted.

Where “Da Ali G Show” worked well and where Borat… excelled was scoring time and time again with the element of surprise and shock.  To succeed with his brave and bold attempts at humor, Cohen is an insanely smart and talented mind and yet, seems stuck running in circles with these characters of his.  The Dictator is flat at times, predictable often, and the hilarious moments are merely fleeting – even when they connect for big laughs.

In Martin Scorsese’s Hugo, Cohen stepped outside of what we had typically seen from him and played a kind-hearted, if not emotionally stunted, train conductor.  His chemistry with Emily Mortimer in the film felt real and affecting.  I remain steadfast in my contention that Sacha Baron Cohen is a tremendously skilled entertainer.  And a future performance as the iconic rock singer Freddie Mercury has definitely perked my interests.  Here however, despite Cohen’s preparation and complete creation of this character, The Dictator looks and feels tired, as if Cohen has simply gone to the well one too many times in his attempts to entertain as well as induce some huge shock and awe.

A sad, but not completely unexpected disappointment, The Dictator will please Cohen’s staunchest supporters, but the film really amounts to nothing more than a quiet fade to the irreverent, and frankly influential approach to comedy that Cohen has delivered for the better part of a decade.  Sometimes we just have to move on.

SHOULD I SEE IT?
YES
  • Fans of Sacha Baron Cohen’s gregarious, unrestrained character creations will be drawn to this for sure.
  • Raunchy slapstick comedy always has a built-in audience and this will have no exception.
  • There is a nod and a wink to Chaplin’s The Great Dictator and a fair amount of spot-on satire which reminds us that Cohen is smarter than the average comedic writer and actor.
NO
  • After losing a fair amount of his fans to Bruno, The Dictator may abandon the Candid Camera faux-documentary approach Cohen has made his trademark in the past, but much of the film falls flat with real actors appearing in a more conventional-style film.
  • The Dictator never reaches a genuine moment.  There is not one moment that goes by where you forget that you are watching a film and that this is all pretend and could never be real, in any capacity.  Good comedies and Cohen’s previous work have accounted for that.
  • This was all be too vulgar, sophomoric, and tiresome for a lot of viewers.  Cohen needs to evolve and diversify it seems.
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