Since the enormous success of “Borat,” Sacha Baron Cohen has been enjoying an immense increase in his exposure and star power. “Borat” was a comedic tour-de-force, blowing away the expectations of what could be done with shock comedy by using a fake documentary format to catch genuinely horrified reactions from unsuspecting bystanders. It also helped to pull off some unexpected social commentary by capturing these peoples’ prejudices on-camera. While “Bruno” attempted to replicate this formula with less success, it still provided some great belly laughs that softened the blow of a few dead spots (and disturbingly explicit spots) in the movie. Now Cohen is back with “The Dictator” and has eschewed the fake documentary format of his last two movies, but this is not for the better.
One of the reasons “Borat” and even “Bruno” were able to generate laughs was the fake documentary format, because, lets face it, watching real people react to shocking things is much funnier than fake movie characters. “Bruno’s” main failing was that its weakest parts were obviously staged, taking the reality out of the situation. Since “The Dictator” is completely staged like a normal movie, Cohen’s brand of shock comedy loses its effectiveness. There are still some gross-out moments that work (like a birthing scene where the absurdity and hilarity of it drowned out my initial disgust), but ultimately they don’t have the kind of punch that they should. The much-advertised helicopter scene is great, although imagine how good it would have been if the American couple were real people reacting instead of actors.
It doesn’t help that Cohen and director Larry Charles (who also directed Cohen’s previous movies) have an “Austin Powers” like tendency to repeat jokes endlessly. The main offender is the constant appearances and mentions of famous people. The Megan Fox cameo is fine (although sadly missing a funny joke from the trailer) and General Aladeen’s wall of celebrity photos is really funny, but by that point (early in the movie), the joke is done and good.
The constant callbacks to celebrities are irksome and distracting, as if Cohen had to rely on other famous people to contrive humor from situations. That said, I did laugh quite a bit at Edward Norton’s quick part. What really hurts “The Dictator” though is its incredibly sloppy editing, cutting scenes on awkward notes and making seemingly giant leaps forward in the plot. We barely, if at all, see how Aladeen begins to like Zooey (Faris), and many scenes seem to be thrown into a blender.
Aside from Ben Kingsley and John C. Reilly, who are unfortunately wasted in their roles, some of the other supporting actors hold their own against Cohen’s fearless energy. Anna Faris manages to elevate herself above a mostly one-note character (super liberal), and Jason Mantzoukas, as Aladeen’s friend Nadal, frequently steals his scenes with great comedic timing.
There are numerous funny parts in “The Dictator,” mostly in the first half, but for the most part the movie is very uneven. Long stretches went by where jokes fell flat for me, only to be broken up by one very hilarious one. Of course, in some of those times, the joke was one featured in the trailer anyway. While the movie ends with an excellent speech skewering America’s government, I was mostly disappointed with “The Dictator;” not enough to consider it bad, but enough to the point where I wouldn’t revisit it anytime soon.
2/4 Rating Criteria