Friday, June 1, 2012

The Dictator

At his best, Sacha Baron Cohen knocks us off balance with blitzkriegs containing nearly every possible kind of joke, from gross-out physical humor to searing political satire. His joyful, often slapstick absurdism and random potshots at pop culture are to comedy what chum is to fishing, luring us close enough to feel the force of his anarchic rejection of both individual and institutionalized cruelty, violence, and prejudice of all kinds. He interacts with real people in his Borat, Brüno, and Ali G incarnations with a tenacity so relentless some read it as cruel, exploiting the kindness of strangers as he gets people to drop their guard, shed the social niceties, and reveal some of the ugly truths we try to bury under pious platitudes.

Admiral General Aladeen (Baron Cohen), the leader of the fictional “rogue North African nation” of Wadiya and the title character of The Dictator, at first seems to be a classic Baron Cohen character. His cluelessness exceeded only by his self-confidence, he sports a ridiculous beard, a stiff, pelvis-first strut, and a generic Middle Eastern accent that makes him sound oddly like Adam Sandler doing schtick. But this time around, everything is scripted (by Baron Cohen and Alec Berg, David Mandel, and Jeff Schaffer, who worked with Dictator director and frequent Baron Cohen collaborator Larry Charles on Curb Your Enthusiasm). The screenplay is clever enough, but it’s also airless and a little unfocused.

The semi-documentary format of Baron Cohen’s Ali G TV show and Borat movie allowed him to make thrilling kamikaze raids on the people he interacted with, blowing up deserving targets like mindless nationalism and bloodlust. In contrast, the sporadically funny Dictator is disappointingly tame and conventional, much closer to the meandering, cheap-shot-ridden Brüno than to the audaciously brilliant Borat movie. Never set loose to mix it up with real people, Aladeen doesn’t even interact much with the film’s fictional Americans, aside from his attenuated romance with the sweetly trusting Zoey (Anna Faris), who sees only the good in him.

And so, except in one very funny sequence set in a tourist helicopter over Manhattan, we don’t get much of a chance to see what this cartoonish despot might reveal about our own demons. Baron Cohen and his team seem more interested in spoofing American politicians professing to act on noble principle while behaving like the dictators they rail against (most notably in a nicely written speech Aladeen delivers to the UN and a deft passing swipe at Dick Cheney) and virulently anti-American autocrats who are secretly in bed with Americans.

Some of those autocrats are quite literally in bed with Hollywood here, thanks to running jokes about American celebrities who prostitute themselves to Aladeen and to a chortling Chinese ambassador. Meanwhile, the movie’s real bad guy, played by Ben Kingsley and looking uncannily like Hamid Karzai, is a double-crossing sychophant who pretends to support democracy but really only wants to get rich at his country’s expense.

Baron Cohen also lands a few nice hits on bloodthirsty leaders like Kim Jong-Il, Muammar Gaddafi and, yes, Dick Cheney. It’s empowering to see people who derive their power by feeding our fears so casually mocked and belittled. Some of the film’s best insults are delivered in passing, as if the targets don’t even merit a full-on assault, like when Aladeen says Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad “looks like a snitch on Miami Vice.”

But all these hits on hypocrisy are just fly-bys in what is mostly a loose-jointed, mildly funny fish-out-of-water comedy. Aladeen’s may be absurd and out of touch, but, as we—and he—come to realize, he’s actually a pretty nice guy. Ignorant at first of that embarrassing fact (an early origin-of-the-specious montage establishes that he was groomed from boyhood to be a tyrant), he learns it through his reluctant romance with Zoey.

Baron Cohen’s awkward misfits always throw off the most sparks when they find the right partner, and Faris, wonderful as always as a wide-eyed comic innocent, humanizes Aladeen while providing a target for some of his best barbs. Aladeen loosens up even more around his buddy Nadal (Jason Mantzoukas), a scientist who fled Wadiya after Aladeen sentenced him to death. Hooking up at an ex-pat café in Jackson Heights, the two riff and tiff like Baron Cohen’s Borat and Ken Davitian’s Azamat in Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, whose title alone is funnier than almost anything in The Dictator.

Baron Cohen may not be trying to make dramas, but he’s in about the same phase of his career as Woody Allen’s frustrated filmmaker in Stardust Memories. His latest movie is enjoyable enough, but it just can’t please those of us who love his “early, funny movies.”

Written for TimeOff

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