Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (August 21, 2012)
Back in 2006, Borat became a pretty big hit at the box office and it looked like Sacha Baron Cohen would become the Next Big (Comedy) Thing. However, 2009’s Brüno fared considerably less well, so any momentum Cohen earned from Borat dissipated.
Both Borat and Brüno provided often-improvised experiences that derived much of their humor from “fly on the wall” interactions between Cohen’s characters and unknowing subjects. For Cohen’s next movie, he left that approach behind and went for a more traditional scripted film.
It didn’t work – at least not commercially. Both Brüno and 2012’s The Dictator earned identical $59 million grosses in the US; combined, the two flicks earned less than Borat’s $128 million.
I wasn’t wild about either of those earlier movies, but I think Cohen has talent, so I figured I’d give Dictator a look. We meet Admiral General Haffaz Aladeen (Cohen), the tyrannical leader of the (fictional) North African country Wadiya. He apparently harbors nuclear aspirations and becomes considered the most dangerous man in the world.
International leaders plan to stage airstrikes on Wadiya unless Aladeen agrees to come to New York and address the UN. However, Aladeen’s uncle/right-hand man Tamir (Ben Kingsley) plots to have him removed and killed. An American operative (John C. Reilly) attempts to torture him, but Aladeen manages to escape – though not before he loses his beard.
This leaves him unrecognizable, so Aladeen can’t get into the UN. Tamir uses a double for Aladeen to address the gathered leaders, and the patsy informs the world that he’ll soon make Wadiya a democracy – all so Tamir can sell off its natural resources for his own gain. Aladeen attempts to reclaim his position with the help of his former chief scientist Nadal (Jason Mantzoukas) – and he also slowly falls for liberal Zoey (Anna Faris).
I think Cohen made the right move when he abandoned the faux real life nonsense of Borat and Brüno. That’s partly because I thought the technique got old quickly in those films, and it’s also because I thought he wrung as much theoretical comedy as he could from that format. The method became a dead end where the cart tended to drive the horse.
Though I was happy that Dictator would be a more traditional film, I admit I didn’t have great hopes for it. The trailers made it look like a bunch of cheap ethnic gags and little else.
To be sure, Dictator does come with a lot of humor based on stereotypes, but somehow it manages to usually avoid the pitfalls of that kind of material. I think that’s because it gets most of its humor from the lead character and his absurdity. When the film indulges in “stereotype comedy”, it usually does so through the prism of Aladeen’s ignorance. This allows the movie to mock the stereotypes and not exploit them – well, at least not as much.
This makes Dictator much more of a character piece than it otherwise might have been, and Cohen delivers a pretty terrific lead performance. He shows excellent timing and rhythm throughout the film, and he manages to bring out the best in his costars. In particular, he shows a nice chemistry with Mantzoukas; I’d love to see those two work together again, as they could make a fine comedy team.
Cohen even manages to tone down the gross-out humor that marred Borat and Brüno. Yeah, we still get a few moderately disgusting bits, but they’re not nearly as nasty as equivalent elements from the prior films, and they seem less pointed. In the earlier flicks, I got the impression Cohen used gross-out elements as a means unto themselves; he expected laughs solely due to the nastiness and not any related humor. Here, the explicit components accentuate other jokes and don’t exist on their own little island; that makes them more effective. The film never becomes quite as offensive as its predecessors, largely because I don’t get the sense Cohen so actively seeks to shock; he toys with political correctness but keeps things playful.
All of this adds up to a surprisingly effective comedy. I always thought Cohen had talent and could lead a good movie some day, but it took him a while. While I can’t claim The Dictator stands as a classic, it’s still a pretty funny and entertaining affair.