The Dictator **1/2
It’s extremely disappointing to me that The Dictator is so strained. Sacha Baron Cohen is – with no doubt, no doubt at all – a brilliant, brilliant comedian, but something has happened; something has turned. His series Ali G and his films Borat and Bruno – all brilliant – have led, almost incredibly, to a flaccid, weak comedy that could have skewered the current state of international relations… but doesn’t. At all. The tone of The Dictator is less Network and more American Pie. And that, frankly, bites.
As an obvious attempt to join the ranks of The Great Dictator, Charles Chaplin’s incredibly precise satire of Adolf Hitler, The Dictator fails on all counts. As a cheap-looking/feeling jokeathon, it mildly succeeds. I laughed out loud about eight or nine times, which is a strong stat, and some of those were very healthy laughs indeed. But boy, when this movie plants a dud joke, the embarrassment is felt all over the theatre like a bad smell (and this movie thinks bad smells are veeerrry funny indeed).
It starts extremely well, with a series of gags about the early life of Middle Eastern dictator Admiral General Aladeen (Cohen) that are smart and actually satirical, setting up the expectation that political satire is going to pervade the whole movie. And, indeed, as long as the movie remains in the fictional nation of the Republic of Wadiya – think Iraq under Hussein, pre-war – it’s pretty damn funny. A lot of Hussein-isms – the use of political doubles to foil assassination attempts, the development of a nuclear program, and an intense hatred of Israel – get skewered mercilessly and somewhat bravely. But by the end of the first act, the film jumps its own shark by contriving to get Aladeen not only over to the United States but to become unrecognised and lost in Brooklyn, and, from here on in, with some exceptional moments, the thing becomes one very laboured fish-out-of-water tale that throws jokes at the audience with a hit rate of about one in six.
This part of the movie – which is two-thirds of the movie – really does induce some cringes, and not of the good, The Office variety (or should I say, the Borat and Bruno variety). The substantially attended cinema audience I was a part of sat silently through many of the attempts at gags, and that silence was loud: everyone, you could feel, was aware that a lazy, unfunny joke had just been launched, surely at the expense of a better joke that could have existed, had the movie been willing to be smarter.
In support of Cohen, Jason Mantzoukas – an actor I know from television’s The League and the podcast How Did This Get Made, and whose career up until now has been confined to guest roles on television, web series and short films – makes the greatest impact as Nadal, Wadiya’s chief nuclear physicist who becomes Aladeen’s unlikely alley in America. Anna Faris, a comedic actress of great ability, unfortunately seems hamstrung by her role as the owner of an organic produce store in Brooklyn – and Aladeen’s equally unlikely love interest. It’s a clichéd, obviously written role (wow, she doesn’t shave her armpits!), and I daresay Faris found it hard to make anything much out of it, especially against Cohen, who, I understand, is allowed free rein to improvise his scenes in any direction he chooses by director Larry Charles, while Faris seems to be lumbered with the script as written (resulting in some extremely disjointed cuts in their scenes together). The whole love story shackles the movie, forcing it to ultimately and ruinously fit into the strict confines of the rom-com genre, whereas Cohen has always been at his best, like any rubber chicken, when allowed to be free range.