Monday, May 21, 2012

The Dictator

THE DICTATOR (Larry Charles, 2012)

With the tyrannical leader in THE DICTATOR pushing for his country to develop a nuclear energy program, the fictional North African nation Wadiya could be the region’s next target of United Nations sanctions and military intervention.  Admiral General Aladeen (Sacha Baron Cohen) insists that such technology would be employed for peaceful purposes.  His giddy denial that nuclear power would absolutely, positively not be used to bomb his hated enemy Israel hardly eases international concerns.

Aladeen travels to New York City to address the UN but soon finds himself on the outside looking in.  Aladeen’s trusted adviser Tamir (Ben Kingsley) arranges for his abduction and murder.  While the magnificently bearded ruler manages to escape from his captor, Aladeen emerges from a literal close shave that renders him unrecognizable as the Wadiyan dictator.  With Aladeen missing and presumed dead, Tamir replaces him with a simpleton look-alike who promises the world community that he will draft a constitution and make Wadiya a democracy.  Tamir will then be free to sell the drilling rights to the country’s highly coveted oil fields, which Aladeen has refused to do.  

When Aladeen makes a scene at a protest, Zoey (Anna Faris) mistakes him for a fellow activist and a political dissident.  Zoey clothes the bedraggled monarch and offers him a job at her Brooklyn co-op.  He initially rejects her offer but accepts after learning that her business is catering the Wadiyan constitution signing ceremony that he hopes to disrupt.  

Baron Cohen’s composite despot changes the language as he sees fit, surrounds himself with female virgin guards, and fills his home and nation with artwork bearing his venerated likeness.  The buffoonish Aladeen is a poke in the eyes of past and present world leaders who abuse power and their people.  There’s nothing funny about this dictator’s real life counterparts, but seeing them mocked provides a touch of catharsis, even if the satire is kind of tame.
Aladeen’s hair trigger orders to execute those who anger him provides the film with one of its best running jokes.  Unknown to him, those he condemns to die are shuttled out of the country, a fact he discovers upon entering an anti-Aladeen restaurant in New York’s Little Wadiya.  Among those who have escaped his wrath are Nadal (Jason Mantzoukas), the former head of his nuclear program now working as an Apple Genius, and a cow who earned his ire.  (The cow ends up served as a steak on a plate, but at least it didn’t meet its end as a political victim, right?)

THE DICTATOR is funniest when at its most outrageous.  A decapitated head used as a puppet is a grotesque highlight.  Aladeen’s rampant racist and sexist declarations, as when he delivers a baby and asks for a trash can upon seeing it’s a girl, bring the edge to Baron Cohen’s style, which seeks to risk, if not welcome, the chance to offend viewers.  He’s most likely to bruise sensibilities when Aladeen draws equivalence between dictatorship and current American politicians and the financially powerful.  One of the most pointed jokes is presented less furiously but is no less sharp.  Aladeen pays for countless celebrities to come to Wadiya and sleep with him, which brings to mind those entertainers who have been in the proverbial beds with oppressive leaders who give them sizable checks.   

Although a fair number of jokes hit their marks, THE DICTATOR tends to be as comedically erratic as Aladeen’s decision-making.  Baron Cohen, his three credited co-screenwriters, and director Larry Charles take a scattershot approach that produces several successes but leads to an often choppy result.  The burgeoning love story between Aladeen and Zoey offers equal opportunity insults by taking progressives down a few pegs but otherwise is an ill fit with the dark humor.  The danger for Baron Cohen is having made his name as a confrontational comedian but delivering something that, while occasionally provocative, feels too conventional.    

Grade: C+

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