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Review: The Dictator (2012)

The Dictator (2012)

Directed by: Larry Charles

Premise: A comedy in which Middle Eastern dictator Admiral General Aladeen (Sacha Baron Cohen) attempts to stay in power when he is betrayed by those close to him. 

What Works: The Dictator is actor Sacha Baron Cohen’s third feature film collaboration with director Larry Charles and it is consistent with the pair’s previous efforts. Their first film, Borat, was very funny but came up short as a satire. Their second film, Bruno, was much more successful as a satire but it was not nearly as funny. The Dictator is a curious combination of both of those films’ strengths and weaknesses. Although its comedy is uneven, when it works the film is smart and funny and its satirical elements are coherent and insightful. Cohen is a very talented performer and he disappears into his characters and takes risks with his material in ways that that few Hollywood movie stars do. In The Dictator Cohen’s aims to be more deliberately subversive than ever before, inviting the audience to cheer on an autocrat who is clearly modeled after real life figures such as Libya’s Muammar al-Gaddafi and Iraq’s Saddam Hussein. Although it is not an endorsement of despotism, The Dictator does take some intelligent swipes at leftist egalitarian values.  Borrowing elements from Coming to America, Cohen’s character finds himself working an entry level job at an organic food coop in an effort to get close to the manager, played by Anna Farris.  As the coop runs into financial trouble, the former dictator enlists his autocratic sensibilities and turns the place around. These kinds of plot twists and set pieces make up the highlights of The Dictator and viewers who come looking for this kind of satiric commentary will welcome it and probably wish there was more of it.

What Doesn’t: The Dictator resembles a lot of Saturday Night Live skits adapted into feature films. First, the story is built around a one-dimensional character. Admiral General Aladeen is fun to watch because he is a horrible person and audiences will find pleasure in his comments and behavior because they violate social propriety. That is very funny at first but it also boxes the possibilities for the character. If he grows into a more humane person then he becomes less interesting to watch but if he stays the same the joke gets old very fast. The filmmakers seem aware of this and try to do both, giving the character moments in which he makes small shifts in consciousness while retaining the essential qualities that make him funny. It isn’t enough and that leads to the second problem: even at eighty-three minutes The Dictator comes across as padded. The thoughtful satire of The Dictator comes in brief doses and in between are long stretches that the filmmakers fill with sexual and toilet humor that just isn’t very funny. The combination of bawdy humor with satire can work as in South Park or Team America: World Police but it isn’t done very well in The Dictator in part because of a failure of comic set up and payoff but also because the vulgar humor is disconnected from the satire. Finally, The Dictator is problematic for its use of racial stereotypes. This film isn’t mean-spirited and in fact it is trying to use those stereotypes for a subversive purpose. But Sacha Baron Cohen falls short of his goal of being a contemporary Charlie Chaplin and the film presents an incomplete indictment of dictatorship and international politics that ends up confirming the kinds of Middle Eastern stereotypes that the filmmakers intend to lampoon.

Bottom Line: The Dictator is wildly uneven. It has moments that are very funny and politically insightful but they are nestled within a film that is just too unfocused and not funny enough.

Episode: #390 (June 3, 2012)