Directed by Larry Charles. Starring Sacha Baron Cohen, Ben Kingsley, Anna Faris, Jason Mantzoukas, Megan Fox, B. J. Novak, John C. Reilly, Aasif Mandvi, Kevin Corrigan, Ajay Naidu, Fred Melamed, Bobby Lee, Sayed Badreya, Chris Parnell. Written by Sacha Baron Cohen, Alec Berg, David Mandel, Jeff Schaffer.
Coming from writer-star Sacha Baron Cohen, The Dictator is expectedly crude, offensive, and often enough, laugh-out-loud funny. It’s also surprisingly formulaic; unlike the faux-documentary style of Borat and Brüno, this film contains (to some degree) a traditional three-act narrative featuring a dastardly villain, a love interest, and a character arc unlikely of any real dictator.
Let me not mince words: the story kinda sucks. But The Dictator is irreverent, short (about 80 minutes, minus credits), and almost indifferent to its plot; it’s funny enough – and the gags hit often enough – to forgive the script’s shortcomings.
Cohen is Admiral General Aladeen, clueless dictator of the fictitious North African country of Wadiya. Threatened with economic sanctions (the film cleverly edits footage of Barack Obama and other politicians into the storyline), he travels to New York City to deliver a speech to the UN.
Aladeen’s uncle and right-hand man, Tamir (Ben Kingsley), doesn’t exactly see eye-to-eye; he plans to turn the country into a democracy, collecting oil contracts in the process. After Aladeen is kidnapped by a rogue American agent (John C. Reilly) and shorn of his illustrious beard, he must rediscover himself on the streets of New York with the help of liberal activist and organic food store owner Zoey (Anna Faris).
While the humor in The Dictator can often be biting – the climactic UN speech is a vicious satire of US politics – the story doesn’t seem to know what to do with it; do we side with Aladeen? Or the ultra-liberals who are also skewered? The answer is somewhere in between, as the film plays it too safe to become truly subversive.
Where the story misses, however, the jokes mostly hit: beginning with a dedication to Kim Jong-Il, the film sets up the Aladeen character with a hilarious mock news report (best bit: a running gag involving the mass confusion following replacement of certain words with ‘Aladeen’). If that’s too clever for you, there’s full-frontal dictator, projectile turds, a severed head turned into a puppet, and a shot from inside a woman’s womb during the most tasteless birth scene since Freddy Got Fingered.
The film is at its best during scenes between Aladeen and Nadal (Jason Mantzoukas), the exiled scientist who attempts to help Aladeen foil his uncle’s plans; a helicopter ride that sees the two of them discuss the new Porsche 911 in front of two American tourists is uproarious. (The sequence is partially in, uh, Wadiyan, and subtitled in Czech on local screens – if you miss anything, here’s the whole scene with English subtitles.)
The Dictator was directed by Larry Charles, who made Borat and Brüno with Cohen and previously was best known for his work on TV on Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm. The plot outline he’s working with here is strictly by-the-numbers, but he plays fast and loose with the material and gives it a kind of TV-comedy-writ-large feel.
While General Aladeen doesn’t have the TV origins of Borat, Bruno, or Ali G, Cohen has done his best to promote the dictator by appearing in character at various events, whether dumping Kim Jong-Il’s ashes on Ryan Seacrest at this year’s Oscars ceremony, or (just yesterday) tossing the body of Italian model Elisabetta Canalis off his yacht before The Dictator’s premiere at Cannes. Still, Aladeen is easily the most thinly-sketched of his creations, even if he is (after Borat) the most endearing.
The film shouldn’t be confused with the 1940 Charles Chaplin film The Great Dictator; indeed, in style and humor, it shares more in common with the Marx Brothers madcap classic Duck Soup. With a subject so ripe for satire, it’s a little disappointing that the film plays out so formulaic and (relatively) safe. But there’s no knocking the comedic talent on display here: The Dictator is wickedly funny stuff.
Also opening this week: