There is a scene in THE DICTATOR that’s as crazy and as silly and as smart and as funny as you wanted the entirety of the movie to be. It happens towards the end, and it’s not quite as long as it could be, and it isn’t really enough to make up for the dry sandbag thud which the rest of the movie generally is.
THE DICTATOR is funny and clever in fits and starts, but we expect more out of Sacha Baron Cohen than fits and starts. I mean, don’t we? This is the king of banzai comedy here. Da Ali G Show, still arguably his finest hour to date, was genuinely transgressive and equally hilarious. Note I said “banzai”, not bonsai. I’m talking surprise attacks, not finely-tended gardening.
BORAT was both — a genuine surprise, even to those of us who saw it coming, and a strongly-sculpted piece of screen comedy. BRUNO was underrated but also lesser, being a bit too similar in structure to BORAT to be able to genuinely surprise. Now with THE DICTATOR, we’re back on fully-scripted territory, out of the field and on location with trained actors. That’s not great, I guess, since we ended up with something closer to the Ali G movie than to the HBO show.
No comedian working today has made a career out of the unexpected quite like Sacha Baron Cohen. But at the same time, a pattern is forming. We’re not in Adam Sandler territory yet, but there are some obvious formula elements creeping into the process. It’s getting to the point where, with Sacha Baron Cohen comedies, we’re primed to expect characters with silly voices and accents, with a devilish smile and a hairiness and an enthusiasm to go full-frontal and an unhealthy surplus of (now-questionably lovable) anti-Semitism. His characters foreigners obsessed with American celebrities, autocrats who surround themselves with sidekicks and love interests who are at once smarter and stupider than the men they follow and love. The particulars may change, but the rest we’re pretty much used to. Again, that’s fine if you’re Adam Sandler, who has been (sadly to one-time fans) generally putting in the bare minimum and reaping massive rewards for the trouble, but from Sacha Baron Cohen, we expect better, we expect smarter, we expect the unexpected. It’s his own damn fault for hitting the heights.
In THE DICTATOR, what ought to be subtleties are bolded and underlined in large font. The soundtrack cues are just one telling example. Have you ever heard Dr. Dre’s “The Next Episode” used to sell a joke in a movie before? How about REM’s “Everybody Hurts“? Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get It On“? Dolly Parton’s “9 To 5“? They’re all here, together in comedy again for the hundredth time.
Maybe that’s just a pet peeve of mine. Maybe I’m being too hard on a movie which is only trying to entertain, and which truly does have a couple sly political observations to make. For example: The scene where hot young actress Megan Fox plays herself in a scene where Baron Cohen’s General Aladeen has paid her for her… time may be played just a little bit too broad for my tastes, but conceptually it’s very astute, considering the fact that many of America’s biggest stars have almost literally whored themselves out to actual real-world dictators to collect easy paychecks for personal appearances and performances.
Then there are moments like the scene I referred to earlier, where Aladeen is traversing a wire in between buildings and has to empty his pockets to get across. The increasingly odd objects he jettisons, and the pacing with which they’re discarded, make for a scene that proves what a dexterous physical comedian Baron Cohen is, and what a knowing collaborator director Larry Charles is for him.
The movie needs more scenes like this one, and less of the flat scenes between Baron Cohen and a mismatched Anna Faris as a neo-hippie ultra-liberal type. The joke gere is that her unwavering gender politics can in their way be as monomaniacal as Aladeen’s dictatorship, but that’s not a joke I buy into. I don’t think Baron Cohen or Charles do either; even in jest, you couldn’t possibly compare Rachel Maddow to Idi Amin, or even to George W. Bush. Faris’ character may be irritating, but she’s never wrong. So the joke doesn’t stick.
I haven’t done much specific plot recap. That’s because I don’t want to spoil too many jokes. THE DICTATOR does have a lot of them, and some of them are well worth your time. I guess what I’m saying is that, unlike Sacha Baron Cohen’s very best work, you can feel the gears turning in THE DICTATOR . It’s too easy to immediately determine the concepts in the conceptual humor. It’s leading the witness. Usually Baron Cohen lets you come to the joke, rather then foisting it upon you. Or else he totally bushwhacks you with the joke. THE DICTATOR doesn’t feel as spontaneous as his best stunts. You can spot the invisible net. The movie is fine, but it’s not up to the high standards set by one of the world’s most nimble comic artists.
THE DICTATOR is now available on DVD and Blu-Ray.
Pillory me for my insubordination over on Twitter: @jonnyabomb