Sacha Baron Cohen is nothing if not courageous. The creator of Borat and Brüno regularly treads the fine line between humour and offense, often generating both in equal measure. With The Dictator, Baron Cohen and his frequent collaborator, director Larry Charles, now aim their satire at political and religious extremism, particularly as practiced by the infamous world leaders of North Africa and the Middle East. But, while the film often walks that same fine line, it also seems curiously conventional, and lacking in edge. It’s not hard enough for rabid Baron Cohen fans, and others may be left wondering what the big deal is.
You can guess what you’re in for when the film opens with a dedication in memory of late North Korean leader Kim Jong-il. From there, we are introduced to Admiral-General Aladeen (Baron Cohen), leader of the fictional nation of Wadiya, an eccentric man-child who was handed power at the age of 6 and hasn’t grown much since. He wallows in excess, travelling in a fleet of golden automobiles, ordering executions at the drop of a hat, and maintaining a magnificent beard.
The early scenes of Aladeen in his element are excellent, but have a disjointed feel to them, as if having suffered from an editor’s heavy hand. It seems likely that much of the comedy was improvised – put together into a conventional narrative, it doesn’t all hang together. Nevertheless, this is the best part of the film, and sets the tone well.
It’s when the story moves to New York City that things start to slow down. Summoned to speak before the United Nations to address concerns that his country is working on nuclear weapons, Aladeen is blindsided by his jealous uncle Tamir (Ben Kingsley), the rightful heir to Wadiya, who has Aladeen kidnapped and replaced by a dim-witted double. Aladeen escapes, but unable to convince anyone he is the Wadiyan leader, he’s stranded on the streets, and turns to green movement caterer and peace activist Zoey (Anna Faris) for help. Also aided by his friend and advisor Nadal (Jason Mantzoukas), Aladeen has only a few days to stop Tamir’s plot to turn Wadiya into a democracy and sell its oil rights to some sleazy executives.
This fish-out-of-water part of the story has been largely hidden in the film’s advertising, and probably for good reason – it’s such a re-hashed plot that you often feel like the victim of a bait-and-switch. We’ve seen this type of story so many times before, there’s little surprise to hold interest. That’s still okay in and of itself – after all, Hollywood doesn’t particularly thrive on original ideas. The real problem is that the humour doesn’t carry the film, despite numerous and admirable attempts to do so.
Aladeen is racist, sexist, ignorant, and paranoid, but Baron Cohen does a great job of portraying it all so over-the-top that he’s still a watchable, even likable character. And to his and the writers’ credit, there is some brilliant satire here. But many of the jokes just don’t cut the way they should. It’s possible we’ve become desensitized to Baron Cohen’s brand of humour, but I suspect the more likely explanation is that the men he’s lampooning – the actual world dictators who rant at the UN, maintain all-female security details, and slavishly follow American pop culture – have already cornered the market on crazy. You smile at Aladeen, but rarely laugh out loud, because, well, that’s just the way these guys are.
All of which is a roundabout way of saying that The Dictator is an okay movie, but just okay. It’s not up to the same level as Borat, but at least it’s not another Brüno.
Tags: movie review