Directors: Lisa Addario and Joe Syracuse
Cast: Odeya Rush, Michael Caine, Katie Holmes, Seth Green, Jason Biggs, Jackson Beard
Running Time: 1:30
Release Date: 3/16/18 (limited)
Review by Mark Dujsik | March 15, 2018
One of our first encounters with General Anton Vincent (Michael Caine), the fictional dictator of an unnamed nation in the Caribbean, features him checking on the executions of a group of accused traitors. He ordered his soldiers to investigate the accused and, if they were guilty, to shoot them. At some point some lines were crossed, and the soldiers missed the whole investigation thing. The scene ends with the general being driven away, with a look of embarrassment on his face, as the accused and probably innocent people are shot.
Shortly after that, Anton is addressing a group of civilians about the failings of the state—shortages of gasoline, bread, and soap. To make up for it, apparently, he also has organized a public execution of one of his brothers in arms, found guilty of selling secrets to the United States government. While the general gives his speech, the feet of the man, hanged from a rooftop above the dictator, drop into frame.
For some important context, both of these scenes of people being executed are supposed to be funny and are meant, in some unknowable way, to warm us up to this character. For obvious reasons, they accomplish neither. They serve as a dark shadow hanging over Dear Dictator, a movie that quickly shifts into a weird coming-of-age story about a rebellious teenage girl who learns a thing or two about life from this man, whom we know to be evil from the start.
The girl is Tatiana (Odeya Rush), a punk rock fan and self-proclaimed rebel who begins writing to Anton for a school project. She believes that the general is misunderstood, but she mainly loves that her choice for a personal hero so riles up her teacher and classmates. Anyway, after several letters, Anton's regime falls to a coup, and the now-former dictator shows up in Tatiana's garage. She has to keep him a secret from the neighbors and, more importantly, her mother Darlene (Katie Holmes).
There's nothing particularly—or even generally—funny about this material, and somehow, writers/directors Lisa Addario and Joe Syracuse keep finding ways to make the movie more unappealing as it goes. There's a subplot involving Tatiana's crush on Denny (Jackson Beard), a fundamentalist Christian who likes reading books with graphic descriptions of Hell, writes heavy metal songs about his beliefs, and, in one scene, displays a twisted way of atoning for his sins (attempting to carve a cross on his chest, before he's interrupted by his father). Most of Tatiana's eventual rebellion, in which she plots to overthrow the social order of the school by taking down a trio of popular girls, is based in her jealousy of one of the popular girl's dating Denny.
Anton, of course, helps her in her planning, using his knowledge of radical left-wing revolution as the foundation. He has a lot to teach Tatiana, apparently, about being a true rebel and—one guesses—getting away from the lazy, consumerist culture of America, which he shows by cooking actual meals and fixing up things around the house for Darlene. Darlene, by the way, is involved in her own subplot, featuring her awkward romantic relationship with her married dentist boss (played by Seth Green) and his foot fetish.
It's almost too easy to point out why this doesn't work by simply describing what happens in the movie. It's intentionally odd without any apparent goal beyond being odd. Anton, who's trying to lead a counter-revolution from Tatiana's suburban home, is seen in with uncritical eye, except when Tatiana learns that his own accounts of his exploits have been greatly exaggerated (a thing she learns from an online encyclopedia, which seems like an easy oversight that could have saved her a lot of trouble, if only she had looked the guy up before declaring him as her hero).
In the movie's view, he's a liar at worst, since his atrocities are either played for laughs or quickly dismissed. In Tatiana's mind, he's only a bad guy when she learns that he might have tortured some people in his rise to the top, but she's essentially willing to forgive that if he helps her. In Caine's performance, he's a basically nice-enough guy who just happens to be a ruthless dictator.
The movie isn't all over the place as much as it's without any clear aim.As a coming-of-age story, Dear Dictator is almost predictable in its beats, despite its inherent weirdness, and as a weird comedy, the premise behind Anton's character is too grim to ignore.
Copyright © 2018 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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