Sacha Baron Cohen, Anna Faris
Directed by Larry Charles
Six years after his politically-incorrect breakthrough mockumentary “Borat” came out of nowhere to gross $128.5 million domestically, and three years after his underwhelming follow-up “Bruno” grossed less than half that ($60 million), Sacha Baron Cohen returns with “The Dictator” – an uneven, but still funny comedy that, at least on a creative level, falls somewhere between “Borat” and “Bruno.”
Abandoning the documentary-style format in favor of a scripted storytelling narrative was the way to go, if only because the cat was out of the bag and Baron Cohen could no longer hide behind the performance artist creations that made him so famous. Even so, he and returning director Larry Charles still manage to cover similar ground by mixing political satire with raunchy humor, though in this case, there’s too much of the latter and not enough of the former.
But “The Dictator” goes one mighty big step further by asking moviegoers to look at the funny side of some tough subject matters. So let this be a warning that if you think it’s too soon to laugh about 9/11 (which, really, it is), then “The Dictator” is not for you. Come to think of it, if you feel like it’s in bad taste to laugh about the War on Terror, the death of Osama bin Laden or even the massacre of the Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics, then “The Dictator” isn’t for you either. But if you’re prepared to give yourself over to the intentionally outrageous spirit that’s intended here, then you will be rewarded with an entertaining comedy that’s consistently funny, periodically shocking and even a little bit smart.
The dictator in question here is His Excellency, General Admiral Haffaz Aladeen, the supreme ruler Wadiya – an oil-rich state in North Africa. Wadiya falls under the scrutiny of the United Nations, which fears that General Aladeen is secretly building weapons of mass destruction. Under pressure from his most trusted advisor – his Uncle Tamir (Sir Ben Kingsley), who serves as his Chief of Security (among other things) – Aladeen reluctantly travels to New York to address the UN’s concerns.
Upon his arrival, he is kidnapped and tortured, only to escape and meet the one person in the city who can help him: an idealistic environmental activist named Zoey (Anna Faris), whose spirit of equality forces Aladeen to have a crisis of conscience. But with his eyes open to a democratic way of ruling his country, Aladeen learns the hard way that his most trusted aide should never have been trusted at all.
As written by Baron Cohen (along with co-screenwriters Alec Berg, David Mandel and Jeff Schaffer), “The Dictator” is at its jaw-dropping best when it shoots for political satire, which it achieves mostly by mining the aforementioned atrocities for humor (again, you just have to surrender yourself to it, or you will be offended). It’s less successful when it resorts to juvenile gross-out jokes, which it unfortunately does most of the time, and with silly jokes that go on far too long.
Though it tries hard, “The Dictator” is no “Borat,” and it’s hard to see how Baron Cohen will be able to pull another rabbit out of the hat that will have the same shocking impact as his ignorant reporter from Kazakhstan. But seeing as how it’s still very funny, it comes close enough, which means that Baron Cohen’s place on the comedic throne is all but assured.
Verdict: SEE IT!
-- Scott Mantz (on Twitter @MovieMantz)