Watched May 16, 2012
Eric Forthun’s review:
Surprisingly, Cohen’s strong satire skills are very hit-and-miss in The Dictator, a sometimes hilarious but often plain absurd take on political power. I think Borat is not only one of the funniest films I’ve ever seen, but also one of the smartest; it’s a stark satire on how our society perceives outsiders, and how our customs look to them. Bruno, while not nearly as effective, is equally as offensive, but in doing so provides a look at a nation that still hasn’t come to terms with homosexuality. But The Dictator, compared to those two, is surprisingly tame, and it lacks the bite that often comes through on his former two films. Maybe it’s the fact that this one is not a documentary-style one that relied heavily on shock factor, but that also shows what type of talent Cohen is. This may not be his strong suit, but he does deliver enough laughs over the short, 80-minute run time to make the experience enjoyable, if uneven.
Admiral General Aladeen (Sacha Baron Cohen) is a dictator of a fictitious nation in Northern Africa named Wadiya, which has many oil reserves and is a hot commodity for other nations. His main assistant, Tamir (Ben Kingsley), is the rightful heir to the throne, but he’s been close to the Admiral for so long, assisting as well with the attempts to build a nuclear bomb. He wants power, though, and a failed assassination attempt, along with a few other bomb ideas, leads to Aladeen heading to New York to meet with the U.N. to discuss a peace treaty. Enter a security guard (John C. Reilly) who is supposedly assisting with the visit, but he actually cuts off the Admiral’s beard and sends him out into the open, with no one recognizing him. Aladeen meets Zoey (Anna Faris), who runs a feminist vegan grocery shop, and so on and so forth.
The plot is inconsequential, but maybe it shouldn’t be. His other films are stronger in their biting satire, and in their approach to their material, but this one just has an inherent silliness about it that doesn’t become easy to embrace. The movie has a lot of running gags, as opposed to standalone jokes that add to the overall message; sometimes these repetitious jokes just don’t work, like one where he simulates cutting off a person’s head every time they disagree with him. The point is that dictators are tyrants and so forth, but why do we have to see that every time? Cohen is a smarter comedic actor than that lets on, and those types of bits in a very short film don’t help it stand on its own.
When the bits work, though, they are really, really funny. There’s one in particular where he goes on a zipline to enter the hotel for the news conference, and he gets stuck in the middle due to the extra weight he’s carrying on him. When we find out what he’s carrying, and why he’s carrying it, it makes for one of the funniest bits I’ve seen all year. It’s in these moments that the film truly shines, although that’s still not where Cohen should be shining. These are heavily physical bits, as is the one where he helps a woman give birth in the grocery store. That one goes entirely for gross-out humor and, while hilarious, it just doesn’t have the type of bite his other works do. Some may say that’s evolution as a comedic actor, but I see it as something that he should go back to in the near future.
Cohen, as most know, is a talented actor, both comedically and dramatically. His work in Hugo last year was surprisingly heartfelt, and much better than anyone could anticipate. He elicits pathos, and he even does that through some of his comedic work; here, that occasionally shines, selling some ridiculous moments by bringing what appears to be genuine emotion. His comedic timing is typically great as well, but here there are a few misfires. Sometimes he speaks a bit too quickly and, due to the occasionally overdone accent, you can’t fully understand what he’s saying. When the joke hits a few seconds later, it makes you maybe miss the next one. They’re hit and miss as well, not necessarily all working, with some feeling more like lighthearted jabs as opposed to full-on punches.
That’s where he works best. The Dictator doesn’t waste his talents, but it doesn’t use them to the fullest. I’ll admit I had high expectations for the film, and I actually laughed a lot, but I found myself feeling underwhelmed as I left the theater. “That’s it?” I was wondering why my side didn’t hurt like the first time I watched Borat, or why I didn’t feel like I never wanted to watch Bruno again because of how disgusting and offensive it was. I find those types of moments exciting and memorable, even if they are not very popular. I liked the film, don’t get me wrong, and if you like his schtick you’ll enjoy what he has to offer, but you’ll probably feel the same: that he’s done better, that he deserves better, and that his next work will probably be better.