Silver Screen: The Dictator ***1/2
Sacha Baron Cohen's last two films, Borat and Brüno, occupied their own little subgenre: part documentary, part narrative, part prank. It's an ingenious blend that lets stellar comedian Cohen create characters and shape a story within the barely structured chaos of the very real situations he engineers.
But Cohen's first film, Ali G. Indahouse, was his one major career misstep, a flagrantly unfunny, unintentionally awkwardclunker that had a lot in common with the infamous Mister Show movie Run Ronnie Run. In both cases, great characters from anHBO series were integrated into a traditional feature film and lost their greatness in translation.
So the question lingered for Cohen's latest film, The Dictator: Can he make a funny movie without resorting to his (pretty ingenious) faux-documentary antics?
Yes, yes he can. The Dictator is supremely funny, if less pointed satire than the last couple of Cohen films. Here he stars as abrand-new character, Aladeen, the oppressive ruler of the fictional North African nation of Waadeya. Aladeen is a bumbling tyrant in the mold ofSaddam Hussein, Muammar Gaddafi, and the man to whom the film is cheekily dedicated, Kim Jong Il. Aladeen spends his days enjoying almost unimaginable luxuries, plotting to acquire weapons of mass destruction, and capriciously sentencing everyone around him to death.
His flinty right-hand man Tamir (Ben Kingsley) has other plans. Aladeen's one principled stance is not to sell his country's oil reserves to other nations, and Tamir wants to convert those resources into personal wealth. He hires a clueless shepherd to serve as Aladeen's double, then has Aladeen exiled and replaces him with the double. But when the not-so-great dictator learns that Tamir plans to have the fake Aladeen make a speech to the United Nations to convert Waadeya into a free country, he must hatch a plan to save his land from the clutches of democracy.
It's a fun story leading up to a nifty payoff, but The Dictator is most successful as a joke-delivery device, and boy does it have a lot of jokes. Cohen's trademark shock humor is certainly there, but as always it's layered with subtle insights and wonderfulwordplay. The result is a movie that nearly overwhelms the audience with jokes great and small. But, unlike in the ill-fated Ali G. movie, Cohen doesn't lose track of the characters, nor does the movie have an unstructured, episodic feel. The subplot in which Aladeen hooks up with a free-spirited hippie chick (AnnaFaris) and must help her make improvements at the co-op grocery store she manages is nearly worth the ticket price alone.
Faris is particularly good, although she and Kingsley are really the only two other players who have room to breathe. The film features a number of great bit players, includingGarry Shandling, John C. Reilly, Ed Norton, J.B. Smoove, and Chris Elliott, but, perhaps appropriately, they're only really there to serve as setups for Aladeen.
The obvious knock against the film is that, as satire, it's not nearly as potent as Cohen's earlier efforts. Borat mocked xenophobic patriotism andBrüno sent up homophobes, but the target here is pretty universally reviled. Nobody is arguing in favor of dictators. But so what? Not every movie needs to be a polemic, andThe Dictator is content to just be very, very funny. The big ideas might not be present, but Cohen, like his tyrannical alter ego, is all about execution.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.