The Dictator

The Dictator


Reviewed by: David Graham

It's been heartening to see fearless Brit satirist Sacha Baron Cohen effortlessly transition from humble support slot on the 11 O'Clock Show to multiplex mega-star brandishing a scabrous mock-doc format that's seen him drill down into the black heart of widespread Western prejudice. His interviews as Staines wigga Ali G, Kazakh simpleton Borat and camp fashionista Bruno have all led to massively successful feature-length films, the latter two in particular exposing commonly held views so mercilessly that they must surely have broadened the minds of all who watch, often by holding up a mirror and inviting viewers to laugh at the things that make them uncomfortable.

It makes sense that for his new project - arguably his first since his cover has been well and truly blown by his unprecedented success - Cohen should turn his attention to Middle Eastern tyranny and how it fuels the West's irrational fears. Cohen's script (co-written with a trio of Curb Your Enthusiasm veterans) lampoons the miscellaneous mental pigeonholing that he (even as a British Jew) will no doubt have suffered and that many resort to when confronted with the potential 'terrorists' that the region's countries are seen almost solely as fostering. Asking us to identify with the Saddam Hussain and Colonel Gaddafi-inspired oppressor of fictional Northern African country Wadiya, The Dictator may have had some of its ground broken by Chris Morris' Jihadist-empathising hit Four Lions, but returning director Larry Charles still knows how to bring the funny and deliver a terrifically tight 85 minutes of entertainment.

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Admiral General Aladeen is a dictator with a playboy lifestyle and lethally petulant attitude. His wealth supplied by his father's legacy of oil and his power cemented by a dangerously childish affection for WMDs, Aladeen's reign seems indisputable, until the Western-influenced threat of democracy rears its ugly head. The Adm Gen journeys to the US in order to make a stand for his right to tyranny, but falls victim to a plot to have his brainless body double take over his place. Forced to forge a life in the melting pot of Manhattan, Aladeen's views are challenged by his green-crusading boss and potential love interest 'Zoe', but his love for his country will see him heroically attempt to regain his rightful place as Wadiya's leader.

The Dictator is immediately enlivened by a series of wicked running gags, from the hilariously naff Middle Eastern cover versions of popular songs that dominate the insistent soundtrack to Aladeen's nonsensical replacement of '300 words' with his own name, often doubling as positive and negative in brilliantly inappropriate fashion. Despite the storyline's obvious targets, the script really hits its stride when it dives headfirst into the utterly absurd, delivering the sort of outrageous situations that operate in a field entirely of their own, completely outwith the realms of decency and logic. Every time you think they've pushed the boat out as far as it will go, the filmmakers set sail for uncharted territories and more often than not come up with imbecilic comic gold. Anyone who dug the puerile but prescient humor of You Don't Mess With The Zohan will have an absolute blast with this.

Like the best comedy, it's both wilfully stupid and deceptively clever, pushing buttons you may not expect. As with Charles' previous films, the script takes some turgid detours into sentiment, and even at less than 90 minutes the plot feels stretched, while some of the more obviously Yank-baiting skits are old-hat (despite one especially uproarious sequence that ingeniously equates American notions of individual liberty with masturbation). In general the script perhaps suffers by veering more towards farce rather than satire, even finding time for an extended spot of early-Peter Jackson-esque splatstick that's guaranteed to provoke hoots of hilarious disbelief from those who can take it.

However, the fact that most of the jokes in the trailer don't even turn up in the film (a bizarre but refreshing trend dating back to the Cohen-featuring Talladega Nights) is perhaps indicative of the filmmakers' confidence and hopefully a sign of the wealth of improvised and otherwise material they no doubt captured and will share on the DVD. It takes a while for The Dictator to find its groove, but that's probably preferable to a comedy running out of steam towards the end; in fact, even the post-credits gags are funnier than anything you'd find in most mainstream Hollywood comedies these days.

Anna Faris makes a suitable foil for Cohen, even if the constant 'lesbian' slurs and jokes about her boyishness grow old fast, while Ben Kingsley turns up as a nicely slimy Iago figure, even if his comeuppance is somewhat confusingly rushed. Elsewhere, John C Reilly is a little wasted as a useless American aide-turned-interrogator, and Megan Fox contributes an underwhelming cameo. This moment leads into a jaw-dropping Hollywood-shaming scene that is indication of either celebrities being more game than they get credit for or Cohen being even more ballsy than people already believe.

If the whole thing lacks the confrontational energy and reality-boosted discomfort of Borat and Bruno, at least it's still anchored in well-made observations that fearlessly tackle everything from our West-biased view on the East to the UN's single-minded and itself fascistic championing of democracy above all else. When Aladeen's climactic speech suggests the US could use a little dictatorship, the script's well-aimed sarcasm is impossible to miss. It's therefore something of a shame that here and in a few other spots, director Charles backpedals into romantic redemption, but the surprisingly sweet nature of the narrative just about sees it through.

The Dictator won't break the box office or blossom into a widespread cultural phenomenon the way the characters of Borat, Bruno and even Ali G did, but it will tickle the ribs of comedy lovers and should develop a cult clamouring of its own. It's not as well-paced as its predecessors, but it is still head and shoulders above anything the likes of Will Ferrell or Adam Sandler have come up with recently. There's less of a nasty streak to the situations than in previous Cohen works - which may be a good or a bad thing depending on your perspective - and the gross-out factor will put off as many as it endears, but this is a curiously lovable film that continues a formidable winning streak for the Brit talent and American director partnership.

Reviewed on: 12 May 2012
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The Dictator packshot
A Middle Eastern dictator is summoned before the UN Security Council in relation to concerns about his nuclear weapons programme.
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Director: Larry Charles

Writer: Sacha Baron Cohen, Alec Berg

Starring: Sacha Baron Cohen, Anna Faris, John C. Reilly, Megan Fox, Ben Kingsley, BJ Novak

Year: 2012

Runtime: 83 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: US


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