Film Review – The Dictator
Sacha Baron Cohen’s greatest strength is his ability to be a provocateur. It is both a gift and a curse, because at times he becomes too dependent upon it. Whether you love it or hate it, he continues this trend with the release of his latest film, The Dictator.
The story follows the dictator of fictional country Wadiya, General Aladeen (Sacha Baron Cohen), who is forced to travel to the UN Headquarters in New York to answer allegations about his nuclear program. After his arrival, he is unjustly removed from power and sets out to regain his position at any cost.
For his past couple of major roles, Baron Cohen has been blurring the line between reality and fiction with his fake characters in real situations (Borat, Bruno), much like he did on Da Ali G Show. That is where he has achieved worldwide fame and his greatest success. This film is a departure from that, and is more in the style of Ali G Indahouse, which was actually a fully scripted comedy. The story is pretty straightforward, being basically a classic “Prince and the Pauper”-type tale. One thing that unites all of his projects, though, it feels like the story takes a backseat to outrageous situations.
As much as I like him in comedies, I think the format has become a bit of a crutch for Baron Cohen. Sure, he is funny in the movie, but it isn’t anything he hasn’t done before. I think some of his most interesting projects have been the ones wherein he hasn’t been just the comedic relief (Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, Hugo). As excited as I was about this film, I am even more excited to see what he can do later this year with Les Misérables and Django Unchained. He is still very funny in The Dictator, but it is sort of in the same vein as Michael Cera’s career…I don’t blame the guy for continuing to do what he does best, but I wonder what else he can do.
As he has become more successful and famous, Baron Cohen has had to raise the bar to push boundaries. This film is by far his most outrageous, and I have trouble imagining how it will be successful. It is rated R, which could potentially be a challenge for most stars, but Baron Cohen has thrived with that. The bigger issue is that The Dictator cuts a lot deeper than his past projects. In the past, he hasn’t shied away from tackling topics such as racism and homophobia, and those are still topics here, but this film makes jokes about topics like terrorism, torture and 9/11, and I could see that turning off huge chunks of audiences. Those topics don’t necessarily mean a film is destined for failure—for example, see the modest success of You Don’t Mess with the Zohan—but that had a much lighter approach to it and Baron Cohen isn’t as bankable as Adam Sandler. Also, I think it might hurt the replay ability aspect of the movie, which was one of the greatest strengths of Borat. My recommendation is to know what you’re getting yourself into with this movie and take everything with a grain of salt…it will help your enjoyment of it immensely or might save you some time and money.
Besides Baron Cohen, the hero of the movie for me was Jason Mantzoukas, playing the ousted former leader of the Wadiyan nuclear program. Much like Fran Kranz with his breakout performance in The Cabin in the Woods, Mantzoukas has been finally hitting his stride. First, he has a scene-stealing recurring role on The League, where he plays a more of the outrageous Sacha Baron Cohen-type character, and now he finds himself here as the hilarious straight man opposite Baron Cohen.
One of my favorite parts of the movie was the soundtrack, which takes some popular American songs and gives them a decidedly Wadiyan spin. It does an amazing job of helping to paint the picture of the dictator General Aladeen. I actually found myself trying to guess what other songs they would use, and I hope the soundtrack gets released along with the movie.
The film suffers many of the same problems that Ali G Indahouse had: there are many funny moments, but at times it definitely felt like it was trying too hard. For example, I’m not opposed to a good masturbation joke, but it really feels out of place in a film like this. Similarly, some of the smaller storylines, like the scenes involving the sexual proclivities of Chinese leader Mr. Lao (Bobby Lee), felt shoehorned into the story. I appreciated actors like Ben Kingsley being willing be to take on the challenge of this film, but he mostly just felt out of place the whole time.
Like with all of his past efforts, Baron Cohen has continued to make me laugh, but seeing this film once was probably enough for me. No matter what, he is clearly a talented actor/filmmaker, and the fact that he can continue to spark discussion is definitely a gift. If you are going to see it, see it with an audience…that will definitely enhance the experience.
Final Grade: B-