The Dictator (2012)

Note: I signed a non-disclosure agreement at the time of seeing my screening of this film. I have refrained from publishing due to both the unfinished nature of the film, and as courtesy to the studio for running a tight screening and not doing stuff like taking our cell phones away.

Hilarious, pointed, but deflated by an uninspired Prince-and-Pauper narrative, this comedy has the tyrannical dictator of the fictional nation of Widiya visiting New York to defend his nuclear weapons program to the U.N. We get a brief overview of General Aladeen’s life in the opening passages before he jets to NYC; he is a baby-like aggressor, using wanton torture and executions for his own personal ego, and deflecting the pleas of his people and the rest of the world while himself lamenting his existential loneliness due to his power. He has replaced much of Wadiya’s language with his own name (“Aladeen” means both positive and negative, making the phrase “HIV-Aladeen” a running joke), decries the U.S., and struggles to state his plans to enrich Uranium without accidentally slipping the word, “Israel” in there somewhere. His scheming Secretary General, wanting to take control of Widiya to subsidize its oil for profit, convinces Aladeen to personally address the U.N. in order to switch him out with an identical goat farmer, hired as his double, who will unknowingly sign the appropriate treaties. From there, the film is basically about Aladeen’s culture shock with the U.S., his realization of his humanity, and his love story with a green grocer from Brooklyn. But who are we kidding; it’s really about how culturally behind much of the Middle East is, and the head-in-the-sand ignorance of the hate-mongering men that have most of the control over the region.

After Borat and Bruno, Sacha Baron Cohen returns to the fully fictional format of Ali G Indahouse, yet the film wants to have the same biting satire as his last two starring roles; however, the decision to frame the jokes with things like personal growth and a contrived love interest played by Anna Faris stinks of forced, arbitrary plotting and is just filler in between jokes. The subplot where Aladeen improves Faris’ small, green-friendly business with his brutish dictator habits is a complete fail, and contains much of the weakest material in the picture. Luckily, this element does not kill the film; I’m happy to say to fans of Cohen that The Dictator is, indeed, fucking hilarious. While the character of Aladeen is a little similar to Borat in his behavior towards other races and women, Cohen manages to strike a number of satirical, scatological, and just plain funny notes that make the film a laugh-riot from start-to-finish. He, his writers, and frequent collaborator Larry Charles manage to highlight the really offensive, anachronistic elements of Middle-Eastern culture (example: Aladeen refers to African-Americans as “sub-Saharans”), and have the dictator constantly spew out hateful, offensive, and consistently hilarious diatribe about everything from hygiene to childbirth to the correct pronunciation of VitaCoco. The production is boosted by a sense of relevance, partially due to Aladeen’s many parallels to Iran’s Ahmadinejad (who he hilariously describes as looking as “a snitch from Miami Vice”); the tensions between the Middle East and the West are a juicy target for smart satire, and the Cambridge-educated Cohen is savvy enough to know when to attack the real cultures with satirical barbs and when to make a fool of himself for the cheap seats.

Say what you will about his abilities as a writer, an exhibitionist, a rabble rouser, or a sensationalist, but his skills as a comic performer are fairly unrivaled. There aren’t any other major comic entities around right now that can effortlessly jump from their own formulated comic vehicles into more invisible roles for dudes like Tim Burton and Martin Scorsese. He plays the dual role of Aladeen and his double at full blast, landing punchline after punchline while managing never to sound like the relatively-similar Borat character. No one else can sell this kind of direct satire in today’s market, and hopefully Cohen will have more luck pushing this subject matter than he did trying to get Red America to want to watch a flamboyantly gay fashionista. Being a narrative, Cohen had the luxury of surrounding himself with a top-notch array of comedic talent to back him up, and there are a plethora of names that pop up in the New York-set production; unfortunately, very few of them are actually given something to work with beyond playing straight man to Cohen’s Aladeen. People like Gary Shandling, J.B. Smoove, Aasif Mandvi, Kevin Corrigan, and Kathryn Hahn come and go unceremoniously, and Ben Kingsley gets his best laughs as the villain during the closing outtakes, while John C. Reilly and Bobby Lee are actually killer in their larger cameos. . The weak link of the supporting cast, due to no fault of her own, is Anna Faris, saddled with the unenviable role of playing a feminist vegan racially-friendly operator of an organic foods store (*belch*). A groan-inducing cliche with a cropped jet-black haircut, thrift-store clothing, and a dead-sincere attitude, she is not given one juicy line or moment, and merely exists to shuffle along a character arc for Aladeen that is unwarranted, unmotivated, and completely extraneous. Faris was one of the funniest female comics of her generation until excessive plastic surgery and a lack of diverse choices sullied her star-power a tad; playing straight man to another genuine comic talent while getting nothing to work with herself seems like a waste of her talents, and makes the deepest sear into this film’s credibility.

Highly Recommended to fans of Sacha Baron Cohen and his brand of incendiary, satirical, over-the-top comedy; this is not quite on the level of Bruno or Borat, but it is definitely in the same echelon of revealing, raucous hilarity.

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