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Review: Sacha Baron Cohen's 'The Dictator' Rules With Comic Authority & Big Laughs

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by Kevin Jagernauth
May 10, 2012 10:11 PM
13 Comments
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At a first glance, Sacha Baron Cohen's "The Dictator" almost seems too easy. Another accent, another elaborate costume, more manscaping and this time with the softball target of despotic leaders -- it almost seemed as if the comic actor was pouring an ocean of fish into a tiny thimble and then pointing a comedy bazooka at it. And for the first fifteen to twenty minutes, "The Dictator" is kind of that obvious, and as a result, a bit uneven. But once the movie really finds its groove, Cohen's latest character creation easily stands up with his best work. Frequently laugh out loud funny, button pushing, and the rare comedy that actually gets more enjoyable as it goes on, "The Dictator" delivers the goods. All hail Admiral General Aladeen!

In an era when nearly every funny moment in a comedy is released in clips and trailers beforehand (we're looking at you "21 Jump Street"), Paramount should be (mostly) commended for keeping the biggest laughs, cameos and even the general plot, out of the marketing. Even the red band trailer only shows portions of sequenes that are much longer and funnier in the actual movie. And keeping in that spirit, we'll stay spoiler-free and just give you the general gist of it. As you know, Cohen plays Admiral General Aladeen, the great leader of the north African nation of Wadiya, who is forced to go to the U.N. to answer questions about his nation's nuclear program under the threat of NATO airstrikes. Once he's there, he's betrayed, has his luxurious beard shaved off, his clothes stolen and, while he escapes death, he winds up lost  and unrecognized in Manhattan. Meanwhile, one of his simple-minded body doubles is used as a puppet by Aladeen's rival for power, to usher in democracy in Wadiya and sell the nation's oil reserves to foreign interests. The ticking clock is that the new Wadiyan constitution will be signed in a few days bringing in free elections, and General Aladeen must find a way to stop it. And that's about it.

Cohen and the team of writers who put this together wisely know that in a movie like this, the plot is pretty much secondary and just the bare framework for Cohen to operate in. So the result is a pretty loose and freewheeling comedy that stays to the general course, but has the freedom to take many rewarding comedic digressions without feeling like it has no sense of direction. Aladeen -- or as he calls himself Allison Burgers -- winds up working at a vegan, feminist, gender friendly, organic grocer run by Zoey (or as he likes to say hilariously in his fractured English, Zo-ayyyyuhhhhh), played by Anna Faris. The actress needs to be commended here for really throwing herself into a role where she's more or less the straight woman to Cohen. On top of that, she looks terrible stuck in stereotypical activisit/feminist attire that requries a butch haircut, hairy armpits, and overalls. But Faris is game and more importantly is able to counter Cohen's antics to keep the tone balanced and prevent it from tipping into farce.

Indeed, the film walks a highwire tightrope for two-thirds of the picture and pretty much nails it. As we mentioned, the opening of "The Dictator" is easily the shakiest section and it's easy to see why. With Aladeen in his native land of Wadiya, seeing Cohen play a crazed leader actually winds up coming across more like a mediocre "Saturday Night Live" skit. So, it's hardly surprising that when Aladeen lands in New York City and finds his belief systems and attitudes challenged, the movie really takes off. Aladeen's casual sexism and racism make for some of the absolutely hugest laughs the movie gets and again, Cohen knows exactly how far to bring it to the line -- and even sometimes step over it -- while still landing on the right side of funny. Even the grossout humor, of which there is some (piss, poop and a dick all make appearances), is remarkably dialed back (for what it is) considering what we've seen on screens over the last couple of years, and is no less effective for it.

But Cohen is only as good as the people around him, and we've already mentioned Faris, but the real MVP, and someone who we hope gets a major boost out of this movie, is Jason Mantzoukas (probably best known to U.S. audiences as the awesomely douchetacular Dennis Feinstein on "Parks & Recreation"). In "The Dictator," he plays the formal head of the Wadiyan nuclear program who winds up running into Aladeen in Little Wadiya and agrees to help him on his quest to maintain his rule over the country and destroy their shot at democracy. It's easy to see why Cohen picked him to essentially co-star in the movie. His sense of comic timing is so unbelievably sharp, and his mix of disbelief, loyalty and enthusiasm wrings out some laughs just as big as the ones Cohen gets. He falls into a great rhythm with Cohen and like Faris, really helps anchor the movie when it could so easily spin right out of control.

And that's really the operative word here: "control." There is a lot that was clearly left on the cutting room floor (by our watch, the movie runs barely 90 minutes long and is all the better for it), but we're sure will make great Blu-ray extras. Director Larry Charles may have had to cut some precious time from folks like Kevin Corrigan, Chris Parnell and J.B. Smoove (who does show up during the credits in the blooper reel/extra scenes bit) but it's to the benefit of the movie, which gets in and out in the perfect amount of time (it should be noted B.J. Novak who was cast is nowhere to be seen; also, don't let anyone spoil the cameos for you).

We wondered if Sacha Baron Cohen would be as funny constrained to the pages of the script, rather than being able to find real world laughs in the faux-doc style of "Borat" and "Bruno." But oddly enough, "The Dictator" gives him arguably even more freedom, allowing his fertile and demented imagination to dream up scenarios he could never encounter in character in real life. And you get that giddy sense of outrageousness all through "The Dictator." From the character of Aladeen himself to the smaller details, like the "Wadiyan" soundtrack of cover versions of popular songs ("Everybody Hurts" is just the start). Providing deep belly laughs the way few comedies do, Sacha Baron Cohen has done it again in what is easily a movie as funny as "Borat." It looks like Hollywood better watch out, because the great nation of Wadiya has a new comedy star, and his name is Admiral General Aladeen. [B+]

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13 Comments

  • Savannah | May 15, 2012 1:16 PMReply

    I guess I can't directly reply to your reply, Kevin, but just wanted to say thanks for letting me know! I appreciate it.

  • Savannah | May 12, 2012 4:47 PMReply

    Are you sure B.J. Novak didn't appear? In the photos of him on set of this movie last summer, he was in clown/mime garb, so I'm wondering if you just didn't recognize him. (I'm not saying you're wrong, it's just that I saw another review that seemed to indicate he did show up in the movie after all, so I wasn't sure. I run a B.J. Novak fanblog so I want to verify whether his scene(s) got cut or not.)

  • Kevin | May 12, 2012 4:52 PM

    I'm a pretty regular "The Office" viewer and yeah, pretty sure his scenes were cut.

  • Collin | May 12, 2012 5:38 AMReply

    I would love another comic marvel from SBC, though I'm not holding my breath. Was Borat so brilliant, because he had time over the years to develop it? It was the best pick of his crop on TV rotation, basically. Notice Bruno wasn't full-fleshed enough to let the comedy naturally unfold from interacting with people. It was too hit-and-run, or punk'd-and-run. Now a live action leaf out of the branches of Team America-dictator humor...
    But I still high hopes if he'd spend more time at the drawing board, especially now that he is too recognizable to be incognito, and may benefit more from structured comedy and cohesive ensemble that require true character acting of Borat.

  • Fran_r | May 11, 2012 3:41 PMReply

    I caught a free screening for this about two months ago and it was awful. I had hopes for it before going in but none of the jokes hit me. They all seemed over done and just mean spirited. The final speech is probably the only part that gave me a good laugh. The rest just felt a waste.

  • WHATTHEPUCK | May 11, 2012 8:25 AMReply

    Where does Ben Kingsley and John C.Reily fit into this?

  • Kevin | May 11, 2012 8:36 AM

    John C. Reilly's role is essentially a cameo -- what you see in the trailer is about what you get. As for Ben Kingsley...just see the movie :)

  • Jonathan | May 11, 2012 8:16 AMReply

    I think Gabe Toro is still on posting on the website. Under the name,"Kevin Jagernath"

  • Edward Davis | May 11, 2012 5:13 PM

    What a stupid thing to say, Jonathan.

  • db | May 11, 2012 4:14 PM

    Gabe Toro IS still posting on this website. Under his own name.

  • Erik McClanahan | May 11, 2012 12:22 AMReply

    Kevin, did we see the same movie? Fuck, I hated this. Final speech is on point and amusing, but this is lifeless, lazy comedy not unlike Cohen's Ali G movie. Borat was genius, Bruno just ok, but The Dictator is a waste of talent.

  • Russell | May 10, 2012 11:11 PMReply

    ...but the real MVP, and someone who we hope gets a major boost out of this movie, is Jason Mantzoukas (probably best known to U.S. audiences as the awesomely douchetacular Dennis Feinstein on "Parks & Recreation").

    Someone doesn't watch 'The League.' RAFIIIIIIII

  • Oogle monster | May 10, 2012 10:22 PMReply

    Wow, I'm surprised with how positive this review is considering how awful the trailer looked. Crazy how the studio moved this film out of competition with Dark Shadows (which will still make a bajillion dollars) and it comes out being the better reviewed of the two. Good for Cohen. Sad for Burton.

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