Movie Review: The Dictator
If He Doesn't Have You Executed First, You Might Die Laughing
By Tom Houseman
May 17, 2012
It is extremely difficult to make a successful comedy that sacrifices plot and conflict to highlight an outrageous or wacky character. Many comedic icons - most notably Adam Sandler and Will Ferrell - attempt to build a film around a character and end up creating some of their most painful, self-indulgent works. And yet Sacha Baron Cohen seems to not only be immune to this trap, but has created an entire career out of films with very loose plot structures that merely serve to give their protagonists a platform for hijinks.
With Borat and Bruno, Cohen created a unique documentary-mockumentary hybrid that at times achieved levels of brilliance. The Dictator is Cohen's first leading role in a traditionally shot and structured comedy, but it is still loosely plotted enough to allow him to break in his character and stretch him to his ridiculous limits. While The Dictator had no chance of achieving the same level of manic hilarity that Borat and Bruno achieved, it is still thoroughly entertaining and, when it works, very, very funny.
Your enjoyment of The Dictator will likely hinge entirely on your tolerance and enjoyment of risque humor. Obviously a comedy about a North African dictator who will order anyone to be assassinated for the most innocuous slight is going to ruffle a few feathers, and with Cohen behind the reins (along with director Larry Charles) it is safe to assume that when given the chance, the film will go for the most outrageous joke possible. Cracks are made at virtually every target, mixing jokes mocking American xenophobia with potshots that exploit stereotypes of weird foreigners and weird Americans (ew, hippies don't shave their armpits, etc.).
Of course, the hallmark of Cohen's films is that the majority of the humor comes at the expense of the protagonist, who is of course so narcissistic that he is blissfully unaware that he is the butt of any jokes at all. Cohen's newest concoction is Admiral General Aladeen, who shares Borat's blatant racism and Bruno's self-absorption. In typical Cohen fashion, Aladeen cannot do anything that is not patently ridiculous, through some combination of his ignorance and egocentricity, and it is when his sense that he is the center of the universe clashes with the opinion of other people that comedy gold is found.
The fact that the plot concerns Aladeen attempting to reclaim his throne so that he can stop his country from being turned into a democracy is a fairly unique and outrageous concept for a film, and it doesn't help to make Aladeen a likeable character. But then again, Borat was never very likeable, and enjoying somebody's antics does not necessarily mean wanting to ever spend time with them. But we do see Aladeen evolve as a character, and we see enough of his heart that while we may not love him, we certainly don't loathe him, and his eternally sunny disposition makes him as fun a character as anything Cohen has given us before.
Anna Faris is the perfect foil and love interest for Cohen, because she is not afraid to find her own way to be funny. Faris typically plays outrageous characters, so when she is given the role of the straight counterpart to the crazy protagonist, she is still able to find the comedy in it. Their romance is almost irrelevant as a subplot, but the way they play off each other is so sharp and clever, while still finding plenty of room to be ridiculous and offensive, that Faris proves herself the rare comic actress who can elevate the role of the romantic counterpart into a source of laughs.
Do some of the jokes go too far? I don't find making fun of minorities for being minorities particularly funny, and some of the scenes that hit easy racist targets end up not being funny, at least not to me. I'm sure some people will find them hilarious, but the problem with Cohen's films is that some scenes are built around one joke, and if you don't find that joke funny, the scene starts bad and just gets worse. Still, there are so few of these scenes that it is forgivable. In addition, Cohen infuses the film with his trademark social commentary in some not so subtle and incredibly spot on ways that is almost perfect. As a satire it doesn't come close to achieving the level of Chaplin's classic, The Great Dictator, but for a gross-out, screwball comedy that is still able to make valid criticisms of our government and society, this Dictator is an almost complete success.