Review: THE DICTATOR Not Altogether Great, But Still Retains Power

Jim Tudor, Contributor
Here we have a fish-out-water story which transports the protagonists from their far-away homeland, to New York City. The CG may not be the best, and it plays more than a bit blue. No, I'm not talking about THE SMURFS, although the argument could be made that the lead in this film bears certain similarities to a cartoon. This is THE DICTATOR - the latest character-driven comedy from Sasha Baron Cohen. Once again, we are given further proof of Cohen as the Peter Sellers of our day - in more ways than one. Like Sellers, Cohen has a certain fearlessness, deriving from his clear need for complete immersion into his characters. He is chameleon-like; his timing - even on lesser jokes - is impeccable. His characters (Ali G, Borat, Bruno, and now dictator Aladeen) are as deeply flawed as they are eventually sympathetic.

In 2006's BORAT, Cohen and director/co-conspirator Larry Charles delivered a tightly wound nugget of comedic near-perfection, somehow as precise as it is seemingly seat-of-its-pants. The character originated in Cohen's HBO series "Da Ali G Show", it's own title hipster having already starred in his own less-successful feature. Next came BRUNO (2009), another over-the-top tale of awkward displacement and shock shenanigans. Like its predecessors, BRUNO's notorious mix of reality-based "Candid Camera" ambush schtick made audiences uneasy, resulting in a film that's excessive nature carried over to its invisibility at the box office. Charles replicated the already staling formula to some degree the year before as he shuffled off with Bill Maher to concoct the anti-organized religion documentary RELIGULOUS - itself obviously a lark for Charles even as it was a polemic mouthpiece for it's star Maher. But the writing was on the wall, leaving everyone to wonder where Cohen could creatively go next, now that his "Ali G" stable was exhausted and his style had grown tired after only two films.

Cut to now, we have the answer: The Big Apple, via the North African country of Wadiya. Never content to let the dust settle on their past controversies, Cohen and Charles once again step into the spotlight to rip the bandage off the still-healing wound. Yes, my metaphors are mixed, but so are my feelings about THE DICTATOR, starring Cohen as the dimwitted yet bloodthirsty third world tyrant Aladeen. But Aladeen isn't really bloodthirsty... Under all the unruly power plays and boisterous orders of execution is a lonely and isolated man who never learned to love or masturbate. He lies alone and confused in his insanely palatial bedchamber, dwarfed by a painting of himself as an abs-rippling wild beast-riding hero, rocket launcher and sexy babe in tow - a piece from the lustiest recesses of Saddam Hussein's art commissions, or the airbrushed side of a van in the 1970s. (Looks like Aladeen also procured the white sex statues from Kubrick's A CLOCKWORK ORANGE for his classy estate. That's two degrees of Peter Sellers.)

As the film goes on - generating some first class laughs on a regular basis, might I add - Aladeen is rendered, by the filmmakers, more and more toothless, thus nullifying the "danger" level of the film, bringing it firmly within the realm of mass audience comfort. So you see, it's now OKAY to root on a ruthless dictator who only wants to stop his power-hungry brother (straight man Ben Kingsley) from propping up a (gulp!) democracy in Wadiya . Along the way to his inevitable Chaplin-esque evocation of THE GREAT DICTATOR (a film that truly had teeth), he sparks up an unlikely relationship with a tree-hugging hairy-armpit feminist lefty played by Anna Faris (channeling Kim Dickens, distractingly). This "lesbian hobbit", as Aladeen mirthfully refers to her at one point, is just as blind and diluted in her own extremities as he is in his, so much so that the obvious duel of fundamental values that should be erupting every five seconds never really happens at all. It's more comedic tension for the already overloaded tension heap, all working in THE DICTATOR's favor.

But latent toothlessness aside, THE DICTATOR does what it sets out to do, and that is to comfortably provoke. Cohen and Charles thankfully abandon their hidden camera confrontation techniques, losing none of what truly makes their established collaborative style work: uncomfortable characters whom exist outside the American norm toiling about outside their norm in a super-taut, boundaries-pushing comedy. They may trade in Judd Apatow's heavy-laden humanity for a certain surface cynicism, but most days I'd take that trade if it means belly laughs in ninety minutes or less - both of which Apatow and company have been incapable of lately, but Cohen and Charles still make look effortless. Make no mistake, when it comes to ruling over R-rated comedy at the movies, these guys dictate with an iron fist.

- Jim Tudor
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