‘The Dictator’ Review
Sacha Baron Cohen and ‘The Dictator‘ pitch a wide tent. He’s got Megan Fox gags for the ‘US Weekly’ crowd and sex acts with decapitated heads for those who think John Waters’ early films are not subversive enough. He maliciously exaggerates Middle Eastern cultural stereotypes for viewers of Fox News, then slips in anti-Western imperialist sentiment for Democracy Now! donors.
This all reaches a dizzying spin when Anna Faris, head of a vegan food co-op in Brooklyn, shouts that the NYPD are fascists, and Cohen’s General Aladeen pipes in with Groucho-esque timing, “yeah, and not the GOOD kind!”
This is one of my favorite jokes in the film because it is indicative of ‘The Dictator’s’ all-over-the-place political point of view. It wants to have its labneh and eat it too and, by and large, it succeeds – but from a comedy perspective only. As an 83-minute collection of gags it is quite remarkable. As a “movie” with actual plot and character, it makes ‘MacGruber’ look like ‘The King’s Speech.’
In ‘The Dictator’ Sacha Baron Cohen plays John Turturro playing a Middle Eastern monarch. From the first frame he is not just racist and sexist (while those are some specialties) he is an abusive tyrant that would make Caligula blush. For reasons that, frankly, I don’t even remember, he has to go to the UN to deliver a speech. While in New York he is set up by his own Chief of Staff (Ben Kingsley, in the world’s greatest Hamid Karzai costume) and kidnapped by his U.S. security envoy played by John C. Reilly.
In one of a number of inappropriate set-pieces, Cohen and Reilly bicker over state-of-the-art torture practices. Cohen escapes, but without his trademark beard and finds himself taken in by ultra left-wing Anna Faris. In time, she will teach the evil “Butcher of Wadiya” the true meaning of love, but not before Cohen spends most of the movie scheming to get back to his guarded hotel suites. (Kingsley’s character has replaced the Supreme Leader with a double, echoing Shakespeare or Kurosawa ‘Kagemusha’ or several episodes of ‘Three’s Company.’)
The bulk of the film is fish-out-of-water set pieces pressing modern New York against a despicable man who holds the rest of humanity beneath contempt. The plot is paper thin, but Sacha Baron Cohen’s natural screen presence – really, he’s the closest thing we have to a Peter Sellers right now – somehow takes these revolting moments and turns them into good-natured laughs.
The best scenes, however, don’t involve any shocking pranks. I laughed the hardest when Cohen and his exiled Chief of Weapons Development (now Apple Genius) Nadal stood on their marks and yelled at one another. For all the envelope-pushing, R-rated antics and difficult New York City location photography, the best stuff is the clever writing and sharp performances from Cohen and ‘The League’ star Jason Manztoukas. Make of that what you will. (And extra baklava goes to Manztoukas for being able to parry with, even upstage, a comedy giant like Cohen.)
‘The Dictator’ is certainly something that audiences who demand even a whiff of a believable plot should avoid. Same goes for those who think there are “just some things you shouldn’t joke about.” My guess is that the small percentage of people who’ll get the reference to the Achille Lauro will either not laugh or, in my case, feel horrible if they do.
‘The Dictator’ hits theaters on May 16th.
Jordan Hoffman was the movies editor at Hearst Digital’s UGO for four years and currently contributes to SlashFilm, MTV’s NextMovie and StarTrek.com. He’s made two marginally successful independent movies, is a member of the New York Film Critics Online and was named IFC’s Ultimate Film Fanatic of the NorthEast in 2004. Follow him on Twitter at @JHoffman6.