Monday, May 28, 2012



Forget the conventional wisdom ... I am here to tell you that THE DICTATOR is hilarious. Look, we all know that with his original breakthrough, Da Ali G Show, and with subsequent spin-off movie-films Borat and (to a lesser extent) Bruno, shock-comedian extraordinaire Sacha Baron Cohen captured a unique sort of lightning in a bottle. And no, The Dictator - a fully-scripted film - lacks that same magic formula. So even when it's funny (and it's often really funny), there's not quite the same thrill as the quasi-improvised stuff that Cohen is best known for. Still, I really liked that The Dictator maintained Cohen's knack for absurdist humor, his biting satirical wit, and combined 'em with a Naked Gun-style, rapid-fire comedic style. I know, that sort of humor is out of favor these days. Today everyone wants their comedies with Apatowian levels of observational humor and heart. But The Dictator is in many ways a throwback to the silly yet fearless comedy of Mel Brooks or the Zucker Bros - completely over the top, at times a bit hit-or-miss, but definitely willing to go big-risk-for-big-reward.

The Dictator is the story of Aladeen, the tyrannical ruler of a fictional Middle Eastern nation. Aladeen (Cohen), sends any who speak against him to their deaths, is secretly developing a nuclear weapons program (or trying to), and keeps a wall filled with photos of celebrities who he's coerced/bribed/paid-off to engage in sexy-times with. So yeah, Aladeen is sort of an ass. But as Cohen is apt to do, he makes even the most unlikable characters oddly endearing. And Aladeen's childlike, bumbling nature makes us sort of root for him even as he's doing very bad things.

The film sees Aladeen journey to America where he's set to address the UN. However, his scheming advisor Tamir (a stone-faced Ben Kingsley) decides to take advantage of the trip to further his own agenda. Tamir enlists one of Aladeen's doubles - originally intended to take a bullet, if necessary, for the supreme ruler - to instead take Aladeen's place at the UN. Tamir wants the double to declare that his country is now a democracy. A good thing in theory - but as we find out, Tamir is only doing this because he's in the pocket of Big Oil companies, and he may be, only slightly, the lesser of two evils. So Aladeen finds himself kidnapped by one of Tamir's agents. His beard is shaved, leaving him unrecognizable. All of a sudden, Aladeen finds himself just another American shmo.

When it's in political satire mode, The Dictator is at its best. There is some absolutely classic dialogue in this one poking fun at both dictatorships and democracies. Baron Cohen is ruthless, but he's also spot-on. The movie also has a number of obscenely funny physical and sight gags. And lots of gross-outs. Somehow, even after you think you've seen everything from Cohen, he tops himself. What I'm trying to say is, The Dictator has some of the most hilariously audacious dirty jokes you've ever seen or likely will see.

So where does The Dictator falter? I'd say the one area in which it comes up a bit short is when it focuses on the central love story between Aladeen and the new-age-girl he meets in New York named Zoey (Anna Faris). Though Faris is good as always as Aladeen's romantic foil, the scenes in which Aladeen tries his hand working at the organic grocery store owned by Zoey feel like an odd detour from the main meat of the movie. At the same time, it's a little jarring to see such a conventional movie romance in what is, otherwise, such an unconventional film. More so though, I just wanted more of Cohen as a dictator and less rom-com stuff - especially given that the romance with Zoey felt a bit forced and rushed. Again, the former seemed to be where the movie was really on its game.

The movie is just packed to the gills with great jokes though. In addition to Cohen's oddly affable Aladeen, there's a slew of talented comic actors in supporting roles. I got a huge kick, for example, out of the shenanigans of two news anchors - played by Chris Parnell and Jessica St. Clair - and their running commentary on Aladeen. The movie is also littered with quick cameos - some are hilarious (Edward Norton, for example), others seem pretty random and sort of pointless, given the top talents involved (Gary Shandling, J.B. Smoove). But back to the jokes, I love go-for-broke comedy that throws everything and the kitchen sink at you, and The Dictator does just that. The movie has enough wackiness to fill ten comedies. And there's plenty of choice material that will be quoted by comedy nerds for years to come. I know, people are quick to rag on Cohen's schtick and claim it's worn thin. But Cohen remains, to me, one of the funniest people on the planet. One of the few comic minds whose projects I will eagerly await without reservation as long as he's working.

So debate all you want the marketing tactics behind the movie. Is Cohen hurting himself by insisting on so many in-character interviews and other meta-tactics? Maybe ... but ultimately ... whatever. The guy is a comic genius. The Dictator is flawed but still very much hilarious. Go see it if you like smart, crazy, inspired comic lunacy.

My Grade: A-

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