In his new film The Dictator, Sacha Baron Cohen plays Admiral General Aladeen, the deranged dictator of the made-up country of Wadiya. Aladeen has unparalleled levels of wealth and power, but a power-striggle with his trusted uncle and advisor Tamir (Sir Ben Kingsley) leaves him stranded like a homeless bum on the streets of New York. He’s befriended by a hippie named Zoey (Anna Faris). Will she be able to help him regain his throne? Does she want to?
It’s hard to imagine Sacha Baron Cohen being able to continue making films like Borat or Bruno indefinitely. He’s too well known now, I think, to be able to take people by surprise and get honest reactions from them in the same way. But I’ve never been that worried about seeing Mr. Baron Cohen move into more scripted fare. Two of my very favorite performances of his came in scripted movies: Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby and Hugo.
With his new film The Dictator being a more traditionally-scripted comedy, I was eager to see how Mr. Cohen did as the star of this more conventionally-made film. (Though I wonder how scripted the movie truly was. Seeing as how the script is credited to three of the key creative minds behind the plotted-but-not-scripted Curb Your Enthusiasm, Alec Berg, David Mandel, and Jeff Schaffer, I’d imagine the script for The Dictator left a lot of room for improvisation.)
However, despite the involvement of those three very funny writers (who also worked on Seinfeld) and another Seinfeld vet, director Larry Charles (who also directed Borat and Bruno as well as Religulous), The Dictator never succeeds quite as much as I had hoped.
It is very funny at times, no doubt. There are some absolutely laugh-out-loud moments. The sequence in which Aladeen (Sacha Baron Cohen)and his partner Nadal (Jason Mantzoukas) take a helicopter tour of New York City and absolutely freak out the midwestern couple with them is a riot. And I adored the scenes late in the film when we see how Aladeen has used his skills as a fascist dictator to remodel Zoey’s hippie grocery into a far more efficient store. (I really laughed when you first hear one of the employees refer to him as “Supreme Grocer.”)
My favorite moment in the movie is hard to describe on paper. OK, it takes place in Kathryn Hahn’s uterus. I will say no more!
But the film is all over the place. I usually admire films that are ferocious about pursuing jokes. There definitely are some great movies that don’t really concern themselves with plot, but rather focus on just moving from the funniest possible line or moment to the next. But The Dictator, to me, felt too scattershot. I’ll give you an example: right before that helicopter sequence, there’s a scene that is all about Nadal being frustrated at how over-the-top Aladeen is being in trying to pretend to be an American. It’s a funny scene, and the humor is drawn from Nadal as the “straight man,” responding relatively realistically to the situation and trying to deal with the cartoonishly-over-the-top Aladeen. But in the next scene, up in the helicopter, BOTH men are absurdly over-the-top and bizarrely unaware of how their behavior is affecting the other American couple. It’s a very funny scene, but it makes no sense based on what we know of Nadal, and how he was behaving in the VERY PREVIOUS SCENE.
Although I tend to prefer the slightly-more -based-in reality style of comedies (films like Knocked Up or Forgetting Sarah Marshall), I am always open to the more loony comic romps. I love comedies that also have a great story and characters you care about (films like Ghostbusters or Groundhog Day come to mind), but I don’t need that. Some movies are able to make that narrative-be-damned approach work (I’m thinking of classic farces like Airplane! or The Naked Gun). But The Dictator never quite reached that comic lift-off for me.
Although it’s a very different style of film that Borat or Bruno, The Dictator shares with those films a gleeful willingness to shock. The film is constantly poking the audience, trying to find the limits of what might offend you. I didn’t find the gag about Aladeen playing a Munich Olympics first-person-shooter video game at all appealing, but I will admit to laughing at some other pretty repugnant jokes in the film. (And, of course, Mr. Baron Cohen throws in a little surprising male nudity in the film for laughs, and that did get a hoot from me.) Your tolerance for these sorts of pushing-the-envelope jokes will be a strong factor in whether you’d get any enjoyment from this film.
Personally, I enjoyed it quite a bit, despite its flaws. It was certainly fun to watch. But over-all The Dictator never really fired on all cylinders for me. I can’t imagine this is a film I’ll be revisiting all that often.