Synopsis: The heroic story of a dictator who risks his life to ensure that democracy would never come to the country he so lovingly oppressed.
Stars: Sacha Baron Cohen, Anna Faris, Ben Kingsley, Jason Mantzoukas
Director: Larry Charles
Running Length: 83 minutes
TMMM Score: (6/10)
Review: At a time when our political climate is being ignited by stadium bills, same sex marriage amendments, and an upcoming presidential race the timing for The Dictator seems right. If you look between the offensive humor and unsightly sight gags there is a smart satire that springs forward from material that is so very wrong.
Baron Cohen first courted American mainstream audiences with Borat and Brüno — one was fairly funny and the other was not. The Dictator represents a very middle of the road approach to comedy with just as many jokes landing as those that crash and burn. Overall I found myself chuckling more than outright laughing but truth be told I laughed at moments that embarrass me in the hindsight light of day.
Baron Cohen teams for the third time with director Charles but in this outing there is an actual script to work with as opposed to Borat and Brüno which were largely improvised. Some of the pleasure of those films was derived from that improv nature and how uncomfortable the audience became when they saw the star interacting with everyday people and making them uncomfortable at the same time. Where Borat had moments that rang true in its satirical look at American culture, Brüno was mostly an offensive display of egomaniacal filmmaking at its worst. The reins have been pulled in here which will please some and displease others (mostly hardcore Baron Cohen fans I think).
With it short running time there isn’t much opportunity for the audience to catch its viewing breath as the film gallops ahead. If a joke bombs you can rest assured another one is in the next frame…true that joke may bomb too but, again, just wait and something funny is around the bend. I found the first half of the movie to be a little slow on the laughs but several clever and ballsy scenes later more than make up for a slow start.
Baron Cohen remains one of the most unappealing screen stars working presently but you’ve got to hand it to a guy that lays it all out on the table and isn’t afraid to fail. His collaboration on the script is very much present in his racist, sexist, and homophobic title character that gets a big wake-up call when he finds himself hoisted out of power while travelling to NYC to speak at the United Nations. He winds up working at a nuts and berries style co-op under the watchful eye of Zoey (Faris whose wide eyes and expressive face seem tame compared to the rest of the cast). As the haughty Dictator plots his revenge on his officials that want a democratic leader, he learns valuable lessons about equality and government.
Now that description has the makings for a nice fish-out-of-water comedy from 1985, right? Well in the hands of Baron Cohen/Charles this relatively simple plot is adorned with jokes that have the potential to offend nearly everyone. Some of these jokes seem like ideas that were tossed around and plopped into the script on a whim to pad the running time. Yes these moments do make sense in the comedic pantheon (such as a birthing scene that’s nearly worth the price of admission) but do they really speak to the overall point of the film? I’m not always sure that’s the case but it’s hard to belabor that point considering the star comedian that’s running the show.
The movie does have a few nice touches…such as a soundtrack of familiar pop tunes sung in the native tongue of the dictator’s homeland. A version of “9 to 5” is performed with gusto and it’s going on my iPod right after I finish this review. Charles doesn’t do much from a technical standpoint but at least the movie doesn’t look cheap or quickly made. There is consistency among the proceedings which too often can be forgotten in short comedies such as this.
A speech delivered by Baron Cohen near the end of The Dictator seems to be what the movie has been working toward for the previous 75 minutes. It’s a brilliantly conceived and delivered monologue that calls out our government with more than a slight slap on the hand. Is it worth sitting through a 50/50 experience of good/bad jokes? I think so simply because a movie that is willing to go so far to make such a statement deserves a look.
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