A film review by Craig J. Koban May 21, 2012


2012, R, 84 mins.


General Aladeen: Sacha Baron Cohen / Zoey: Anna Faris / Megan Fox: Herself / Nuclear Nadal: Jason Mantzoukas / Tahir: Ben Kingsley / Clayton: John C. Reilly / Nurse Svetlana: Olivia Dudley / Usher: J. B. Smoove / Slade: Kevin Corrigan

Paramount presents a film directed by Larry Charles / Screenplay by Sacha Baron Cohen and Alec Berg

THE DICTATOR gets a huge laugh right from the get-go (the film's opening title card states that it’s dedicated to the loving memory of Kim Jong-il) and never looks back.  It tells a tale of a tyrannical dictator who will go to shocking – and, to be fair, frequently hilarious - lengths to ensure that freedom, democracy, and any western socio-political-cultural influences will never see the light of day in his great nation. 

The nation in question is the North African Republic of Wadiya that has been ruled over for 40 years by Admiral General Aladeen (not to be confused with Disney’s ‘Aladdin’).  Flashbacks and voiceover narration early on reveals snippets of his past: “He did not know his mother, who died in childbirth,” and in the very scant amount of footage we see baby Aladeen coming into the world and his mother is then systematically smothered with a pillow by armed guards.  You know the old joke “even Hitler loved his mother”?  Well, Aladeen never even knew his. 

He grew up to become a sneering, venomous, anti-western, anti-Semitic, and anti-just-about-everything-he-doesn’t-like oppressive bully that rules over Wadiya with an iron fist.  He became an Olympic athlete, at least in his own version of the Olympics where he’s allowed to win every event and shoots anyone that appears to be giving him a challenge.  When he’s not driving around in his entourage of Hummers (all made of gold) sheepishly surrounded by his loyal bodyguards (all uber hot women in war fatigues), he lives a lonely life of seclusion in an unfathomably huge palace that serves as his base of operations.  From there, he gives speeches to his people, makes plans for global terrorism, and on his down time he pays celebrities to have sex with him.  He has what appears to be thousands of Polaroid’s of those he’s slept with, the latest being Megan Fox, the previous including such diverse people like Lindsay Lohan, Oprah Winfrey, and Arnold Schwarzenegger. 

THE DICTATOR comes from the warped and daring minds of star and co-writer Sacha Baron Cohen and director Larry Charles, who previously teamed up on BORAT and BRUNO.  Cohen perhaps needs no introduction at this stage of his career: the Cambridge-educated Brit has gained a reputation as one of the pre-eminent comedic satirists of his generation.  His quasi-documentary BORAT launched his career playing an imbecilic Kazakh journalist that comes to America and his follow-up, the slightly inferior, but still side-splittingly amusing BRUNO chronicled another perverse creation - a gay Austrian fashion model.  Those films – aside from radically pushing just about every boundary of taste and decency – explored the nature of prejudice, even when its characters made complete asses of themselves.   

THE DICTATOR is no exception: just like Borat and Bruno, General Aladeen is a figure whose perception of everything around him is perpetually and hopelessly shoe-horned within his own self-delusional tunnel vision.  Cohen and Charles use this broadly developed caricature of a tyrant to take both incisive jabs not only at Middle Eastern political thugs, but also how western nations like the U.S. often lets racial prejudices perceive just about every Middle Easterner as a suicidal terrorist.  The film makes fun at the malevolent creature of cruel spite that is Aladeen – the type of flamboyant decadence he lives in, his mean-spirited and disgusting racial bigotry, the self-aggrandizing God-like visage he typifies himself with, and his insatiable hunger for world domineering power – but it also takes equal opportunistic shots at American cultural responses to such madmen.  Yes, THE DICTATOR is maliciously obscene and not only borders on puerile tastelessness, it gleefully walks over the border.  Yet, like great satires, it desirously goes right for the jugular of its targets.   



As for the film’s actual plot?  Aladeen heads off to New York to give a speech before the U.N., but before he can do so he is betrayed by his second-in-command, Tahir (Ben Kingsley), who replaces him with an idiotic body double (the gag here being that no one will know the difference) that he will use to give a speech that will announce the spread of democracy in Wadiya, to the financial windfall of Tahir and his backers.  Aladeen escapes unscathed (unless you don’t count his beard, which was cut off, meaning that no one will recognize him as the real Supreme Leader).  He finds solace and shelter with a – ahem – left-wing, vegan, feminist, immigrant-loving, health food storeowner named Zoey (the sprightly and game Anna Faris, who holds her own to Cohen's absurdity).  When not working as a clerk at her store, Aladeen hooks up with a former nuclear scientist under his rule (that he thought he had executed over an argument about how pointy his nuclear missile should be), Nadal (Jason Mantoukas, who hysterical plays straight man to all of Cohen’s chronic buffoonery) and the pair decide to team up and ensure that Aladeen’s double never makes that speech at the U.N.   

Like all memorable screen comedies, THE DICTATOR goes to great lengths to score laughs and even when Cohen fails miserably you’re willing to almost forgive him for trying.  There are huge guffaws to be had, for example, when Aladeen addresses Wadiya and can’t stop cracking up when he pathetically tries to tell his people that breakthroughs in nuclear research will only be used for peaceful endeavors.   Most of the ample laughs come when he’s a fish-out-of-water and stuck in the Big Apple trying to stay incognito to plan his attack against Tahir.  There are funny bits to be had with every new way Aladeen increasingly mocks Zoey – and women – in general (“I love it when women go to school.  It’s like seeing a monkey on skates – it means nothing to them, but it’s so adorable for us").  Then there is an uproarious scene when Nadal and Aladeen go on a helicopter tour of New York and speak innocently to one another – in their native tongue – but drop words here and there that instantly panic an American couple into thinking that they are planning another 9/11 in 2012. 

For as scatologically broad and farcical as THE DICTATOR is during its lightning quick 84-minute running time, it culminates on a climatic scene with the real Aladeen addressing the U.N. and the world that deserves worthy comparisons to what Chaplin did in THE GREAT DICTATOR.  Aladeen pitilessly lashes out at democracy in general: “You don’t know how good you have it here,” whereas in his nation the top one percent controls all the wealth; the media and newspapers are governed and ruled over by billionaires; the country's leader can declare war and bomb any other nation he wants, even if it's unjust and invalid; offers no health care at all for the sick and needy, and…so on and so on.  Very few scenes in modern comedies are as patently hysterical while simultaneously speaking to so many social and political evils and ills that are eerily close to all of us as this one does.   

I just wish, though, the Cohen did not squeeze in as much gross-out gags and pratfalls in-between sequences of fearless and bold political satire as he did in THE DICTATOR.  Visual hijinks involving exposed genitals, urine, fecal matter, and, uh-huh, birth canals are mournfully hit-or-miss.  Also, for those enamored with the faux-documentary approaches of BORAT and BRUNO may be setting themselves up for big disappointment with THE DICTATOR, which is told in a relatively conventional manner with characters and a plot with a beginning, middle, and end (part of the greatness of Cohen’s last two film’s were their unending anything-could-happen unpredictability and spontaneity).  THE DICTATOR is the lesser of the three Cohen/Charles collaborations, but I admired its chutzpah to try anything and go from one preposterous and objectionable moment to the next while, at the same time, having moments of political satiric brilliance.  And General Aladeen…how do I say this…emerges as a shockingly endearing character in the film; that’s both a frightening and amusing sentiment, which I think is the film’s ultimate motive. 

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