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Does Sacha Baron Cohen’s “Dictator” Rule?

May 22, 2012

Bombs away! It’s not even Memorial Day, and the summer movie casualty list is growing. Dark Shadows is sucking on dry veins, and Battleship sank faster than you can say, “You sank my Battleship!” But the biggest disappointment—not financially, since it was nowhere near as expensive as Shadows or Ship, but in terms of creative potential—may be Sacha Baron Cohen’s The Dictator. That’s because it’s half a masterpiece.

Nobody commits to a character like Cohen, whether it’s Borat or Brüno or the police inspector in Martin Scorsese’s Hugo. Admiral General Haffaz Aladeen, despot of the fictional land of Wadiya, is no exception: He, too, should be committed. As should Efwadh (say it out loud), the dim-witted peasant who trades places with the tyrant in a Prince-and-the-Pauper type twist. And here’s where the problems start. What begins as a scimitar-sharp political satire becomes increasingly conventional, as Aladeen gets lost in New York City. Despite the outlandish gags (Efwadh drinks his own urine, Aladeen flashes his obligatory penis), it’s a tired babaganoush-out-of-water story. And if that line offends you, you should definitely skip this not-so-great Dictator.

Wait, it gets worse. Aladeen falls in love with Zoey, an organic grocer from Brooklyn, played by Anna Faris, whose appeal remains inexplicable to me after What’s Your Number? and Take Me Home Tonight. It doesn’t help that her short, dark coif makes her resemble, in Aladeen’s words, “a midget in a chemo wig.” The last thing you’d expect from Sacha Baron Cohen is a bland rom-com, but that’s what The Dictator cruelly turns into.

Every once in a while, he’ll strafe the audience with a pricelessly offensive zinger (when Aladeen finds out Zoey is pregnant, he asks, “Are you having a boy or an abortion?”). And there’s a serious political message lurking beneath the jokes: Aladeen is declared the last great dictator, since all the others are dead—”Khadaffy, Saddam, Cheney…” He even takes a thinly veiled shot at Rupert Murdoch, whose 20th Century Fox distributed Borat. Talk about chopping off the hand that feeds you!

But then it reverts back to predictably gross gags (Aladeen goes down on Zoey’s hairy… armpits!). The Dictator also squanders a stellar supporting cast, including Cohen’s Hugo costar Sir Ben Kingsley, SNL‘s genius Chris Parnell as a newscaster (he’s so perfectly deadpan, you wish he’d anchored “Weekend Update”) and Curb Your Enthusiasm‘s J.B. Smoove, whose trademark ruckus must’ve been left on the cutting-room floor. Along with most of the bits seen in the 83-minute film’s trailer.

Like Borat and Brüno, The Dictator was directed by Seinfeld/Curb vet Larry Charles, but this time he’s brought along fellow sitcom alums Alec Berg and David Mandel as well as Jeff Schaffer, who also collaborated on the significantly less than sporadically funny Brüno. The trio’s TV work has been brilliant. Their previous movie output—Eurotrip and Mike Myers’ dreadful The Cat in the Hat? I don’t know about that.

But the real problem is this: For Cohen, the jig is up. He can no longer do undercover comedies like Borat and Brüno because he’s become too recognizable. And he’s a victim of his own success because everyone expects him to match the fluke windfall of Borat. In short, he’s half-assing it. He needs to embrace his inner dictator and make the movies he wants to make, not bow to the will of the studio system.

Did you submit to The Dictator’s iron fist? You will post a comment!

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