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Dustin Putman

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The Dictator  (2012)
2½ Stars
Directed by Larry Charles.
Cast: Sacha Baron Cohen, Anna Faris, Ben Kingsley, Jason Mantzoukas, John C. Reilly, B.J. Novak, J.B. Smoove, Kevin Corrigan, Erick Avari, Aasif Mandvi, Jim Piddock, Bobby Lee, Fres Armisen, Kathryn Hahn, Megan Fox, Nasim Pedrad, Garry Shandling, Edward Norton.
2012 – 83 minutes
Rated: Rated R (for strong crude and sexual content, brief male nudity, language, and some violent images).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, May 11, 2012.
Writer-star Sacha Baron Cohen (2009's "Brüno") and director Larry Charles (2006's "Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan") are known for taking political-incorrectness to the brink in pseudo-documentaries featuring outrageously controversial fictional title characters interacting with unsuspecting civilians. Their best work has been the height of hilarity, humor that bravely sacrifices good taste to reveal the real world's lingering hang-ups and prejudices. In other words, there's a purpose behind the shock value. Naturally, the easily offended need not apply. With Cohen's and Charles' latest dip in the hard-R pool, "The Dictator," they've made a more conventional, fully scripted feature film courtesy of co-writing team Alec Berg, David Mandel and Jeff Schaffer (2004's "EuroTrip"). Blurring the line between dictatorships and democracies—it's amazing how many examples of the former perfectly fit the description of America today—the movie has its own succinct if stinging points to make, but too often bogs itself down in between with barrier-crossing humor that takes scatology to heights rarely, if ever, glimpsed before in mainstream cinema. Yes, 2001's much-maligned Tom Green comedy "Freddy Got Fingered" crossed my mind on more than one occasion. Even that film, though, didn't include a heartwarming scene where the romantic leads discover their love for one another while holding hands in a pregnant woman's vagina.

Sacha Baron Cohen's latest colorful personality to whisk itself on the screen is Admiral General Aladeen, maniacal dictator of Middle-Eastern country Wadiya. With nuclear threats looming and his latest body double shot dead, Aladeen escapes the local turmoil and heads for New York City. No sooner has he arrived to bask in the glow of outraged protesters when his scheming advisor Tamir (Ben Kingsley) has him kidnapped and stripped of his identity (and beard). As his new double makes the news-breaking announcement that he plans for an upcoming signing of the Wadiyan Democratic Constitution, the real Aladeen finds himself working for ultra-liberal health food store owner Zoe (Anna Faris). When he discovers their business will be catering the upcoming constitutional signing at The Lancaster Hotel, Aladeen sees it as his one chance to infiltrate the event and stop his beloved country from gaining its freedom.

Whereas "Borat" and "Brüno" were consistently insightful and very, very funny almost to a fault, "The Dictator" is more of a hit-or-miss affair. There are still plenty of hearty laughs, to be sure, and yes, most are of the disbelieving "oh, no, they didn't!" variety. Having lost his mother when he was just a newborn (she didn't die from childbirth, but from being promptly smothered in her hospital bed), Aladeen grew up independent and hungry for power. Thus, becoming the dictator of his country is a natural fit as he busies himself by prepping nuclear weapons, ordering executions with the frivolity of ordering lunch, and adding to his massive photo wall of celebrity sexual conquests (his latest: Megan Fox, making a good-sport cameo). In an example of being so wrong yet so out-there that it's right is a scene where he plays a video game about the assassinations at the 1972 Munich Olympics. Another memorable set-piece finds Aladeen and assistant Nadal (Jason Mantzoukas) becoming helicopter guides of Manhattan, their foreign conversations misconstrued as the talk of terrorists by the horrified tourists. In an example of the fine line between successful humor and going too far is a running gag about the decapitated head of an elderly man stolen during his funeral. It's immensely creepy. Pop-cultural references to everything from Bravo's "Real Housewives" reality franchise to "Avatar" are also a little lazy and flash-in-the-pan, ensuring that the film will come off as dated a decade from now.

Sacha Baron Cohen is a fearless actor, never ceasing to impress with how far he'll go to sell his characters and their personas. Like a more radical, confrontational Borat, he thinks nothing of slinging derogatory racist slang and ethnic stereotypes wherever he goes. An unlikely protagonist who wholeheartedly supports tyranny and fascism, Aladeen's one chance at seeing things in a different light comes in the form of Zoe, a stringent believer in equality for all who is understandably taken aback by her new quirky friend's off-color sense of humor. Knowing him only as Allison Burgers (he's incognito, after all), Zoe's topsy-turvy friendship with Aladeen transforms into something oddly sweet, even amidst the lessons on masturbation and unruly armpit hair. Anna Faris (2011's "Take Me Home Tonight") is a rare match for Cohen, every bit the comedic talent he is. Though Zoe isn't as fully written as she could have been, Faris makes the part her own, sporting a short brunette haircut and an earthy physique that is diametrically the opposite of her role in 2008's "The House Bunny" outside of a common cuteness factor.

Running an abbreviated 83 minutes, "The Dictator" makes sure not to overstay its welcome, but may have gone too far in the other direction; some fleshing-out of Aladeen's relationship with Zoe could have helped to not make the film as a whole feel so slight. While a healthy stream of gags work, there are the head-scratchers, including a scene set inside a pregnant lady's (Kathryn Hahn) vagina that must be seen to be believed. Unsure of whether to laugh or wretch, most viewers will probably just sit with their mouths agape. Ultimately, in the end, a case is made for dictatorial societies that sounds perilously similar to our own, and it's as ruthless an attack on U.S. government as a silly comedy can probably wage. When "The Dictator" wants to make a point, it does. When it doesn't, it moves steadily between strikingly clever and disappointingly immature.
© 2012 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman