Disjointed comedy sinks third collaboration between Sacha Baron Cohen and Larry Charles
For The Dictator, the third collaboration between chameleon comedian Sacha Baron Cohen and director Larry Charles, the two have bucked the mockumentary genre that had previously proved to be a perfect playground to explore American intolerance. Using (mostly) unscripted encounters between Cohen’s outrageous foreign characters and unwitting subjects trapped in an often raunchy version of “Candid Camera,” Cohen proved himself to be an excellent satirist and provocateur. The Dictator is a scripted comedy starring Cohen as Admiral General Aladeen, a tyrannical and simple minded foreigner trapped in America. The movie, with its large cast of comedians and constant desire to push the boundaries of good taste, plays out like a series of sketches – some funnier than others.
Cohen’s Aladeen is the dictator of Wadiya, a fictional North African country whose tight grip on its oil reserves and loose tongue when it comes to threatening the rest of the world has made its leader a hated and feared figure in the free world. Trapped in America and cut off from his people following a coup, Aladeen bumbles through a series of misadventures on his journey back to absolute power. Co-stars include Ben Kingsley as Tamir, Aladeen’s trusted advisor; Jason Mantzoukas as Nadal, the lone supporter of Aladeen following his American exile; and Anna Faris as Zoey, a health food proprietor who offers Aladeen a job and – possibly – a love interest.
When The Dictator works, it’s an edgy comedy unafraid to shy away from raunchy adult humor, razor-sharp satire and genuinely funny set pieces. In other words, it’s vintage Cohen – who rose to fame with his hilarious sketch comedy program “Da Ali G Show.” There are just enough funny sketches in the film where it’s easy to recommend the film to comedy lovers. Cohen hasn’t completely lost his grip on what’s funny and, in The Dictator, more than once knocks a home run out of the park.
Unfortunately, the film as an overall piece feels massively disjointed. Scenes do not easily flow into one another and plot points feel artificial and in service of the joke instead of the other way around. While this criticism is true of Cohen’s previous films (both Borat and Bruno were essentially just a series of sketches as well), by establishing itself as a narrative first, a comedy routine second, The Dictator sets itself up for something resembling a story. You can forgive Bruno and Borat‘s disjointed tone due to the films’ mockumentary structure (and, to be honest, the greater laugh-per-minute ratio). The Dictator is trying to tell a real story with a real character arc and, in that regards, it fails.
Whenever Cohen and Mantzoukas share a scene together, the movie really pops thanks to the actors’ chemistry. As Nadal, Wadiya’s former top scientist who was sentenced to a life as an Apple Genius following a bad encounter with the petty Aladeen, Mantzoukas is able to hold his own alongside Cohen. As Cohen’s straight-man, Mantzoukas is able to take a quiet reaction or a disbelieving delivery and spin it into comedy gold.
Unfortunately, a big chunk of film is spent on a different relationship – that between Aladeen and Zoey. Anna Faris, who has shown herself to be a fine comedian in her own right, is out-of-place in the larger-than-life satire Cohen has constructed around his character. Which is weird. Normally Faris is a firecracker of comedic energy – her on-screen persona just as large and over-the-top as any of Cohen’s characters. In The Dictator, though, Farris is subdued and almost sleepy – she seem to be sleepwalking through the part and the result is a film with large chunks of forced romantic comedy that just don’t work. It’s not easy to make a film with a running time just over an hour feel like it is lasting a lifetime but Faris and Cohen do an admirable job of running aground what would have otherwise been a pretty tightly constructed comedy.
The Dictator is not an exceptionally bad film – there are quite a few scenes in the film that rank among Cohen’s career best. It is when the film grows teeth and turns its satiric bite onto Americans instead of the dictator himself (we get it – dictators are crazy and mean, that’s not exactly cutting edge observational humor), the film finds its footing. Much of The Dictator just seems too easy. Cohen has proven himself to be an excellent comedian when he’s poking fun at American culture – in The Dictator too much energy is wasted at tweaking the tail of a tiger whose tail has already been cut off.
Director: Larry Charles Notable Cast: Sacha Baron Cohen, Anna Faris and Ben Kingsley Writer(s): Sacha Baron Cohen, Alec Berg, David Mandel and Jeff Schaffer
Robert Saucedo is an avid movie watcher with seriously poor sleeping habits. The Mikey from Life cereal of film fans, Robert will watch just about anything — good, bad or ugly. He has written about film for newspapers, radio and online for the last 10 years. This has taken a toll on his sanity — of that you can be sure. Follow him on Twitter at @robsaucedo2500.