Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Review: "The Dictator"

It goes almost without saying that "The Dictator" is not as funny as "Borat" or "Brüno," Sacha Baron Cohen's two other comedies about crude foreigners who come to American shores and haplessly inflict their outrageous behavior on the natives. Really, no other outcome was possible.

"Borat" had a fresh, vibrant feel coupled with a mad hatter's sense of spontaneity. (It actually received an Oscar nomination for best screenplay, which I do not take issue with beyond questioning how much of anything was written down before they started filming.) "Brüno," if not nearly as consistent, cleverly uncovered some uglier parts of pop culture.

But the big difference those two movies had from this new film is that they were, at least ostensibly, mockumentaies. That is to say, most of the people reacting to Baron Cohen's antics were regular rubes trotted in as unwitting victims.

The joke was not Brüno or Borat acting out, but the reaction it provoked .

"The Dictator" is fundamentally different in that it's a scripted comedy in which everyone is an actor hired to play a role. Instead, their reactions to General Aladeen, the despotic ruler of the fictional Middle Eastern country of Wadiya, are preordained. And that just drains all the juice out of the movie.

In large part, that's due to the fact that the supporting cast doesn't really have any reaction. Aladeen will say or do something incredibly racist, or sexist, or some other -ist, and the people just sort of stare at him quizzically like they're addled.

No one personifies this better than Zoey, Aladeen's would-be American love interest. A crunchy, Birkenstock-wearing "sustainable Earth" type, Zoey (Anna Faris) is absolutely appalled when all that hatred comes tumbling out of Aladeen's mouth, wrapped into a twisted braid of bent vowels that's supposed to represent a Wadiyan accent. But other than a couple of mild admonishments, she never tells him where to go.

Director Larry Charles and Baron Cohen, who co-wrote the screenplay with three others, don't attempt much in the way of plot. Aladeen comes to America after the United Nations threatens action over his country's development of nuclear weapons, and somehow he gets switched out with his simple-minded sheepherder of a body double.

Tamir (Ben Kingsley), Aladeen's ambitious right-hand man, sees an opportunity to install a puppet and run the show himself. Curiously, Tamir's big plan is to turn Wadiya into a democracy so he can start selling his country's vast oil wealth on the international market.

As evil schemes go, it's a pretty benign one.

I won't deny there are some good laughs in "The Dictator." I counted three that actually got me guffawing loudly, and perhaps a half-dozen others that evinced a smile and a chuckle.

But there are also many long, dull stretches where not much is going on. Despite the movie's skimpy 83-minute run time, it often seemed to drag itself out unnecessarily.

The interesting question is where Sacha Baron Cohen's career goes from here. He's too famous now to pass himself off for goofs, and clearly his model of humor isn't geared toward scripted fare. Based on "The Dictator," I'd say his reign of funny has come to an end.

1.5 stars out of four

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