Friday, May 18, 2012

REVIEW: "The Dictator"

Sacha Baron Cohen is a great comic talent and a good actor with a lot of potential, so it's encouraging to see him trying to move beyond the "ambush-interviews-as-a-wacky-character" genre that initially made him a sensation. Let's just hope that the next "something new" he tries sticks better than "The Dictator" does.

The main problem at work is that while Cohen has wisely abandoned the "interview real people" routine, he's really only made a lateral progression - once again inhabiting a broad, purposefully-offensive cartoon caricature like Borat, Bruno and Ali-G but this time dropping said caricature into the leading-man spot of a formula fish-out-of-water comedy.

The persona in question is Admiral General Aladeen, dictator-for-life of the fictional North African Republic of Wadiya. He's basically a pastiche of every "crazy leader" Western audiences have become recently familiar with - a little Saddam, a little Kim-Jong Il, a little Ghadaffi, a little Ahmadinejad, etc; - plus a smattering of broader riffs on Middle Eastern cultural-stereotypes (he's a sexist, an anti-semite, you get the idea.) This is actually the funniest stuff in the movie - it's a riot watching Aladeen go about his psycho-supervillain routine; and you start to get the sense that a "Spinal Tap" style mocumentary JUST on the running of Wadiya might be funnier than the rest of the movie.

Along with brutalizing his people while spending absurd amounts of national wealth on his personal fetishes and fixations, Aladeen has also begun seeking nuclear weapons which has pushed him to the brink of international military intervention; which he has been given one last chance to avert by addressing the United Nations in New York. While there, he is betrayed by his uncle (Ben Kingsley) and left for dead - the betrayers planning to replace him with a double and initiate a "transfer to democracy" which will actually involve Wadiya and it's oil fields being taken over by a cabal of corporate power-players. There's a lot of potential for smart pitch-black satire in this premise; the idea of a corporate-"democracy" being equal to or even worse than a murderous dictatorship, but other than a well-intentioned but leaden speech at the very end it doesn't go anywhere. Instead, we follow the (not dead, as it turns out) Aladeen through a bad guy version of "Coming to America," as he schemes to get himself back into power while hiding in the guise of a Wadiyan refugee and falling for Anna Farris as the boss of a hippie Brooklyn food co-op.

A lot of this is pretty funny; I liked an extended bit where Aladeen visits a restaurant catering to Wadiyan refugees, and you can see a better movie struggling to escape in a subplot where The Dictator turns Farris' struggling food store around by applying his governing "expertise" to small-business. But it just can't rise above the level of barely-connected comedy sketches that can't even bother to maintain some consistency of character: Sometimes Aladeen is a wily schemer, then he's an idiot manchild, then he's a derranged butcher (a bizzare laugh-free dialogue exchange is dedicated to him having raped the members of Menudo.) That kind of "whatever's funniest right now" approach worked in "Borat" and the rest, where the whole point was that the interviewees were only meeting him for that bite-sized moment and the audience is in on the gag; but when it's a full-fiction movie and Aladeen is playing off other made-up comedy players it's just tiresome and disjointed.

It was probably innevitable that Cohen was going to stumble in a "transitional" movie in between his original schtick and whatever he grows into, but "The Dictator" is still pretty disapointing. Granted, I laughed hard and I laughed often - but then I forgot that I'd laughed at all.


buddy2blogger said...

Nice review of the movie.

Check out my review .


Terrence Edwards said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Terrence Edwards said...

How can you call Ahmadinejad a dictator? He's an elected official, and there's no reason to think he won't step down in 2013 when his term ends.

Seriously, edit that.

Dan O. said...

Good review Bob. Wasn’t as funny as Borat, or even Bruno for that matter, but it still made me laugh a lot more than I expected to mainly because of Baron Cohen’s style of humor. He’s always so mean with his roles, but is perfect at staying in character the whole way through.

Slithers said...

I agree with Terrence Edwards.

Then again, it doesn't surprise me that the "average" american would think of ANY non-western leader as a dictator. But Bob, I thought you were above the Michael Bay-worshipping, X-Box live douchebag kind of people that the media identifies as "average" american.

Anonymous said...

I agree with the others Ahmadinejad is not a dictator, on the other hand Khamenei sure as hell is.

Joe said...

The review calls Ahmadinejad a "crazy leader", not a dictator. You guys might be putting words in Bob's mouth.

Unless Bob edited the original post without acknowledging the correction. If so, shame on him.

Nicholas said...

Leader is not the right word any. Many experts estimate him as low as the 16th most powerful man in Iran. Calling Ahmadinejad a "leader" would be like calling the Queen of England the leader of Britain. It would be Absurd. Ahmadinejad is a public figure head with little real power, who is considered a massive joke even among his own people.

They largely keep him around so that the power vested with the clerics. There is fear that a stronger President would give the elected branches of government some small amount of power, something the clerics would not stand for.

Long story short, don't call Ahmadinejad a leader. Do not give him credit where it is not due. AND PLEASE DO NOT ACT LIKE A MEDIA SHEEP. For years the media has been vesting power in this man that he does not have. They have removed the focus from where it should be as is true with so many other issues.

It may seem like a minor thing, Bob, but this is indicative of a larger problem, and one of the reasons our country has dealt with Iran so poorly for decades.

Nixou said...

"How can you call Ahmadinejad a dictator? He's an elected official,"

The election was rigged, and badly rigged, as in "a eight-years old kid could have made the rigging less obnoxiously obvious": Ahmadinejad multiplying by ten his number of votes in the province of Lorestan; Karroubi falling from 55% to 4,5% in the very same province; turnout jumping by nearly 25%; etc...: what kind of fucking morons do you think we are?

I cannot help but utterly despise the "hey, look at me, I'm pretending that a third-world tyrant is a legitimate ruler because he said nasty things about the US and being a westerner myself that make me edgy" wanker-routine and every waste of oxygen who indulge in it.

Hiding behind "Harmondale" said...

Hey Bob, was wondering what your take on how the green arrow show is looking so far. Any thoughts?

Terrence Edwards said...


It's America's absolute refusal to step back and take a look at the world as it really is that people around the world dislike it. Stealing an election is reprehensible, but does not make you a dictator.

As an a U.S. citizen living abroad in a developing country, I get annoyed when I see the world misrepresented. It's better to just get it right rather than rationalize misconception or make excuses. In actuality Iran was trending much more moderately before a certain president decided to lump them together with a so-called "axis of evil."

Besides, elections are tampered with in the West too (2000 US election).

In any case, it's good that the language was changed. If you think he's a crazy leader (and, yes, he's a leaders. Let's not split hairs), that's fine. Also, I think this movie looks interesting. I'll probably go see it despite this sour review.

Nicholas said...

Terence: I am not splitting hairs. Ahmedinejad has no real power. The majority of people in the west (our poor friend nixou) do not understand this, again largely thanks to the media.

Names matter, people hear President, and they immediately assume that he is the problem. He is a lackey, a disgusting human being surely, but removing him from "power" or reforming his policies (coincidentally something that actually has started to happen) will not change Iran in the least and is a waste of time. In order for any change to happen in Iran the clergy must be reformed, and power needs to gradually be returned to the elected governments.

On a side note a leader is defined as a guiding or directing head, as of an army, movement, or political group. Ahmadinejad is a mouth piece. He does not guide or direct policy except to a very limited extent. He does not have control over the countries army either. He is not a leader in any sense that means anything. He is a spokesperson, the talking head to distract from the men behind the curtain.

Dathi48 said...

I kind of love how the comment section of a movie review is dominated by arguing over 1 minor line that people are reading way too much into.

David Anders said...

Welcome to the Internet Dathi48, the magical land where people would rather nit pick bullshit in an attempt to prove they are "Right" than just acknowledge the original work.

Also I find the snide "Micheal Bay Worship" comment to be a particularly good bit of trolling.

Good review, and I had a feeling from the trailers that the movie was going to be as Bob described it, funny but not in a lasting sort of way.

MovieBob said...

I used the term "leaders" specifically because not all of the listed names are technically dictators, though they are all in "leadership roles" and thus leaders.

I'm well aware of how the Iranian power-structure works (both in theory and in actual practice) but this wasn't the place to lay it out.

Nicholas said...

Dathi: This is what the comment sections are FOR. If people didn't have discussions over what SOME would call nit picks what would be said. I agree with this. I disagree. Just because something is a small point does not make it a nit pick and many small things can amount to a big thing. Nit picks can also lead to very fun and heated debates over Iranian Hierarchy. What is wrong with that? Maybe someone learned something new. And if not 3 or 4 of us just had a good ego boost by talking about something with authority as if we know everything (me included). No one was hurt, it was FUN!

Bob: If a review of shallow comedy isn't the place for a lengthy debate of the Iranian hierarchy, even though everyone basically agrees but do so in contradictory tones, then when is?!?!? Good review though!

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