Friday, May 18, 2012

In Theaters: THE DICTATOR (2012)

(US, 2012)

Directed by Larry Charles.  Written by Sacha Baron Cohen, Alec Berg, David Mandel, Jeff Schaffer.  Cast: Sacha Baron Cohen, Ben Kingsley, Anna Faris, Jason Mantzoukas, Adeel Akhtar, John C. Reilly, Megan Fox, Kevin Corrigan, Fred Armisen, Kathryn Hahn, Seth Morris, J.B. Smoove, Chris Parnell. (R, 83 mins)

The jokes fly fast and furious in the latest outrageous comedy from fearless BORAT provocateur Sacha Baron Cohen and director Larry Charles. Baron Cohen, who co-wrote the script with veteran CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM writers Alec Berg, David Mandel, and Jeff Schaffer (also the team behind the 2004 cult comedy EUROTRIP), is Admiral General Aladeen, the supreme ruler of Wadiya, a fictional country in North Africa, just east of Sudan.  A longtime champion of oppression (the film is dedicated "in loving memory of Kim Jong Il"), Aladeen finds himself sanctioned by the UN for his attempts at building a nuclear bomb and must head to NYC to address the United Nations.  Aladeen is abducted by the head of his hotel security team (John C. Reilly), but manages to escape, but not before having his trademark beard cut off.  Aladeen is now stuck in New York City and unrecognizable while his treacherous aide Tamir (Ben Kingsley) uses a dim-witted double (also Baron Cohen) to bring so-called "democracy" to Wadiya if only to appease the oil companies who will give him a huge payout (which Tamir will use to "buy a house next to George Clooney's") in exchange for control of the country's energy resources.  Aladeen then meets and slowly falls for activist vegan food co-op manager Zoey (Anna Faris), who he first mistakes for a boy and then a "lesbian hobbit," and tries to outwit Tamir and regain his dictatorial control of Wadiya.  But...will Zoey convince him to change his ways?

When THE DICTATOR is on, it's almost as hilarious as anything in BORAT.  But that's not as often as it should be, as Baron Cohen seems too concerned with making Admiral General Aladeen endearing.  Early in the film, he's trying to convince Megan Fox (playing herself), who's been flown to Wadiya to sexually service the dictator for a huge fee, to stay over because he wants to "cuddle."  The idea that the vicious dictator, even played for laughs, really just wants to settle down and find love doesn't really gel, especially since, upon ejaculating into Fox, he triumphantly boasts "You now have herpes!"  The jokes have about a 55%-to-45% ratio of clunkers to zingers.  It works best when Baron Cohen is being as boldly offensive as possible, whether Aladeen is mocking China and insisting he's not being "lacist," playing a 1972 Munich first-person-shooter video game, or going to extreme methods to obtain real hair to make a fake beard ("Plan B!").  There's plenty of laugh-out-loud bits throughout THE DICTATOR, but just as much, if not more, of the humor lands with a thud: Aladeen (calling himself "Alyson Burgers" for reasons to complicated to go into) getting a job in Zoey's food co-op and delivering a baby when a customer goes into labor in an endless scene that has him losing his cell phone in the mother's vagina, or being suspended in mid-air and taking a huge dump on a pedestrian, or a painfully unfunny (and unending) scene where he's incognito and using one posted sign after another to supply his fake names ("Employees Mustwashhands"), and entirely too many jokes about Zoey's hairy armpits.

But Baron Cohen working at half-capacity is still funnier than most of what's out there, and when THE DICTATOR scores, it's screamingly funny.  Just not as consistently funny as it should be.  BORAT was endearing because he was so clueless, but that was truly a lightning-in-a-bottle film that only works once, as the intermittently funny BRUNO demonstrated.  Baron Cohen clearly knew that going back to that mixing-with-reality well again wouldn't have worked (mainly because he's too well-known by this point, although THE DAILY SHOW still manages to find some people completely unaware of its existence), but he tries to have it both ways here.  He uses Admiral General Aladeen to reflect relevant world situations (he gets a great monologue near the end about why Americans should be glad they don't live in a dictatorship: "The top 1% would own all the wealth!  Politicians would give tax breaks to their rich friends!"), but turns the character into a well-meaning, misunderstood, lovestruck sad sack who just wants a soulmate.  It's hard to reconcile those two vastly different elements, and as a result, THE DICTATOR is wildly uneven.  The supporting cast seems to be having a good time, with a couple of surprise cameos, including a hilarious one by an actor not generally known for having a sense of humor.  THE DICTATOR has some big laughs, but it's a huge step down from BORAT and feels really padded even at just 83 minutes.  It's probably about on the level of BRUNO, a film that felt disappointing in theaters but seems to play better when you catch it on HBO.   Call it "worth a discounted matinee."

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