The Dictator (2012)
May 25, 2012 1 Comment
Forced to give a presentation to the United Nations, after having been threatened with invasion after announcing his scientists are mere months away from enriching uranium, Wadiya’s Admiral General Hafez Aladeen (Sasha Baron Cohen) arrives in New York City to the protests of the American people. When he is betrayed by a scheming relative (Sir Ben Kingsley), robbed of his beard and replaced with a slack-jawed doppelgänger (Cohen again), Aladeen is taken in by a feminist vegetarian greengrocer (Anna Faris) under a fictitious identity. Aladeen has only days to unmask the impersonator before he signs a document democratising Wadiya.
Too famous to continue making guerilla mocumentaries after the runaway success of both Borat and Bruno, Sasha Baron Cohen and director Larry Charles’ latest collaboration has had to change tact completely. No longer able to rely on his various personae provoking middle America into inadvertently showcasing their prejudices (or, occasionally, their humility), The Dictator is by necessity a much more controlled experiment. Out of context (or, rather, finally given some) much of the comedy unfortunately falls flat, as what was once funny by virtue of Cohen’s bravery and ingenuity is now just the product of laboured contrivance.
That’s not to say that Cohen’s latest creation is a failure. Far from it, Aladeen is responsible for many of the film’s funniest scenes. But while both Borat and Bruno (and even Ali G) were the result of years of practice and perfecting, Aladeen feels strangely shallow and under-realised. With a stick on wig and flimsy accent, the dictator feels less like a character and more like a collection of uneven idiosyncrasies awkwardly taped together at the writing table. Aladeen is supposed to be a dictator, routinely ordering the execution of others and responsible for the oppression of an entire nation, and yet he is about as evil as a xenophobic grandparent. At times The Dictator feels like a pale regurgitation of ideas better executed in Megamind or even Despicable Me.
As for the rest of the cast, Faris is slightly more successful in that role she does as the raspy simpleton. Essentially a caricature of political correctness gone wrong, Zoey nevertheless manages to bring a likeability to her character, the primary foil for many of Aladeen’s best gags – by turns described as a teenage boy and a chubby Justin Bieber. John C. Reilly, meanwhile, is memorable as Clayton, his rapport with Cohen’s during the latter’s supposed torture raising a few titters, while poor Ben Kingsley – no doubt talked into appearing during a moment of weakness on the set of Hugo – is left to skulk in the corner of the screen in the hope that nobody might recognise him as the once-great star of Gandhi. Or even Thunderbirds.
I realise that this is all very indecisive; indeed, I sat down to write a truly scathing review only to find my critique returning time and again to the admittedly funny script. Cohen’s co-authored script is genuinely hilarious in places, an opening dedication to Kim Jong-il and a few running gags concerning a severed head and Aladeen’s inability to concoct a fake name proving the most successful. As a satire, however, it is far safer than you might expect. While the film does have something to say about American politics, health care and the media, such commentary is generally saved for a final speech in which Aladeen tries to persuade the United States to become a democracy, inadvertently highlighting all of the ways in which the two are almost inseparable.
But mostly, The Dictator is diabolical, lacking the originality that made Borat and Bruno so successful. Many of the gags ultimately fall flat, less as a result of being offensive and more to do with the fact that they are simply not funny. In fact, the entire Wadiya-set first act – in which Aladeen swans around his mansion having people executed – is tedious beyond belief, while the rest of the movie is often too preposterous to engage on any meaningful level. It may just be the funniest worst movie I have ever seen – make of that what you will.