Friday, May 18, 2012

Follow the Supreme Leader

When I first saw the trailer for Sacha Baron Cohen's latest farcical satire, The Dictator, I definitely had high hopes. While on the surface it looked dumber than dirt, the movie nonetheless showed a bit of the charm and humor that made Cohen's previous films Borat and Bruno worldwide hits. The Dictator became one of my more anticipated summer releases, as more and more viewings of the trailer cemented itself into my good graces. Then the second trailer was released. While in some ways funnier than the first, I couldn't help but feel a little let down. Instead of being another in the series of mockumentaries that made Cohen the star that he is today, this latest entry turns out to be a story-driven comedy, featuring Cohen as a North African ruler dethroned and forced to actually work for his next meal. Add Ben Kingsley as his chief of staff and Anna Faris as a resident New Yorker who takes the former despot under her wing, and you have a film that goes far out of its way to be nowhere close to what I expected. Still, it had the potential to out-funny 21 Jump Street, and I always have more fun watching R-rated comedies than I think I would going in. They always seem to surprise me in some way, and while Seth MacFarlane's Ted looks great, I was betting on The Dictator to be the summer's best adult comedy.

Well, this made the Gay Pride Parade a bit awkward...
Admiral General Aladeen (Cohen) is the racist, sexist, anti-western and antisemitic ruler of Wadiya, a rogue North African nation that would be rich off the sales off its oil reserves, were Aladeen's numerous human rights violations and rumors of nuclear weapons development not the cause of numerous United Nations sanctions and threats of military actions from the world's leaders. Threatened by attack, Aladeen and his entourage visit New York City to lie to the UN about their nuclear program, only for the leader of Wadiya to be betrayed by his uncle and second in command, Tamir (Ben Kingsley). Replaced by an easily-manipulated double, stripped of his trademark beard and stranded in the slums of NYC, Aladeen must partner with former political prisoner Nadal (Jason Mantzoukas) in order to infiltrate the UN, reclaim his position of power and prevent the ultimate evil from descending upon his native Wadiya: Democracy. And he might even get lucky with feminist vegan human rights activist Zoey (Anna Faris) while he's at it.

"You don't understand... I like to be in Amer-i-ca!"
Right from the start you can tell how ridiculous the whole thing is going to be, as the film opens with a dedication to the memory of North Korea's former leader Kim Jong-il. From there, it is a constant barrage of political satire, wildly inappropriate humor, and more wrong than a week's worth of Fox News broadcasts.Cohen obviously had a lot of inspiration in creating the model for his Wadiyan dictator, from  Saddam Hussein to Libya's Muammar Qaddafi (complete with Amazonian Guard) and just about anyone with political clout in Iran. Considering the atrocities those leaders had amassed in just the past decade, let alone the entirety of their reigns, you can imagine how difficult it is to create something borne from them that could actually be funny. Cohen's response to that is to act just as outrageously as humanly possible, and for the most part his approach actually works. The Dictator at its best features no direct involvement with the plot, but is in the gratuitous asides that cause you to shriek with unexpected laughter at the trials of the idiotic deposed ruler. Whether it is the flashbacks of ordering the executions of his people for inane reasons, asking a police officer how much he charges for assassinations or the efforts of his "work" at an organic food store, the film is absolutely at its best when little is actually happening, and Cohen is allowed to go buck wild and let us enjoy his efforts.

Which one is more used to working on their back, I wonder?
It's the story that unfortunately derails the whole process, and makes you wonder just why Cohen and director Larry Charles steered clear of the mockumentary style that had served them so well in their previous efforts. If The Dictator had simply been a faux documentary about Aladeen's trip to America, I'm sure the humor overall would have carried the hour and a half it took to watch this movie. As it stands, the plot is silly (in a bad way), forcing our hero (yeah, I'm using the term loosely) into a character growth spurt that can't possibly be sustained in any way, and for the sake of entertaining the audience, it isn't. I guess since Cohen did so well in Scorcese's Hugo, he thought he could take some of those elements and make The Dictator even better than Borat. While I genuinely loved Hugo, and by extension Cohen's work in it, he and Charles combined are no Scorcese. Even worse is the love story, which somehow conspires to pair Aladeen with a women who represents everything he hates... and then makes it work! I don't usually get uber-political, but there is no way a vegan, feminist, organic-consuming, human rights activist would ever have anything to do with Aladeen, who hates everything and generally views women as sex objects. Zoey is also apparently business-inept, as it is the intervention of Aladeen that ultimately saves her fortunes. Faris' character is the perfect example of what is wrong with women in film, and it doesn't help that the perpetually-disappointing actress is unable to keep up with Cohen on a humor level to balance out the dynamic.

Ah, this is the Kingsley role I had gotten used to. I was worried after he was actually GOOD in Hugo.
The Dictator has some great moments, and a speech at the end in which Aladeen tells the UN what is so great about his brand of rule (best lines include 1% of people having all the wealth, "free press" actually owned by one family, and nobody complaining when you place excessively numerous members of a particular race in prison) is truly inspired, as is a helicopter tour over the city of New York, and the brief shot of the Wadiyan Olympic Games (sadly plopped in at the very beginning). The soundtrack also charms, with Middle Eastern music artists remixing tracks like Dr. Dre's 'Next Episode', R.E.M.'s 'Everybody Hurts', and Dolly Parton's '9 to 5', translating them into foreign speech. Ultimately, though, this is the type of comedy you feel bad about laughing at, especially when you consider just how many rape jokes the script features (I stopped counting after the first dozen). It is Cohen's excellent delivery and timing that make up 99% of the laughs you'll get out of The Dictator, and they are all definitely earned. Still, in a world where a Hollywood film makes most of its revenue from foreign markets, it's difficult to imagine Cohen and Charles' latest effort getting out of the United States without causing a holy war, even if you tightly regulated the releases. This film features one of the world's top satirists definitely off his game, and that's a shame, as a better story might have forced its way into the Top 10. Instead it will settle somewhere in the pack, disappointing not only Cohen's fans, but anyone who hoped for an R-Rated comedy in the same league as 21 Jump Street. The Dictator goes out of its way to offend everybody, but if you're a woman, Jewish, Korean, feminist, Middle Eastern, a New Yorker, a parent, or in any way liberal, you'd be right to think that you've been singularly targeted, and might wish to stay away.

Now if you'll excuse me, I've got a Wadiyan warlord to evade.

"I am Admiral General Aladeen, and I do not approve of this message."

No comments: