Mark Reviews Movies

The Dictator (2012)


3 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Larry Charles

Cast: Sacha Baron Cohen, Anna Faris, Jason Mantzoukas, Ben Kingsley

MPAA Rating: R (for strong crude and sexual content, brief male nudity, language and some violent images)

Running Time: 1:23

Release Date: 5/16/12

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Review by Mark Dujsik | May 15, 2012

The Dictator is dedicated "In loving memory of Kim Jong-il." That should pretty much prepare one for what's in store.

Like the deceased North Korean dictator (and many others of his sort in the past and present), Admiral General Aladeen (Sacha Baron Cohen) has little bite, no matter how loudly he barks (usually virulent words of racism, anti-Semitism, and sexism). Early on, there's a scene in which Aladeen visits his country's central nuclear research facility (It's "for peaceful purposes," he tells an assembled crowd, unable to contain a fit of giggles at the blatancy of the lie). With a lot of fanfare, the missile where the nuclear payload will be contained comes out of its underground shelter. When the camera pulls back, the Supreme Leader quickly realizes that it's not even as tall as the people around it.

We're instantly reminded of the recent attempt by Kim's son Jong-un to launch a "weather satellite" at the tip of what very suspiciously looked like a ballistic missile. Of course, Kim Jong-un's display of impotence at least managed to get in the air—about a minute and a half before it exploded. Aladeen is too concerned with how his missile looks (Yes, there is a subtle mention that he's probably compensating for something else when the routine to prepare his new double includes shortening the man's penis) to even get it to the launching pad. He wants it to be pointy; the head scientist on the project has to explain to his boss that the "research footage" Aladeen has been watching is probably a cartoon.

The point (There is one to all of this) is that, like so many of his ilk today, Aladeen, despite his boisterous and violent rhetoric and showy displays of power that really isn't there, is probably mostly harmless to the world at large. The fantasy is that Aladeen, unlike so many of his type, is mostly harmless to the people of his country—in his case, the fictional North African nation of Wadiya.

Even the man he hires to execute his enemies (of which there are many, even a man who does the awkward "should I pass" dance with him on the palace stairway) is part of the resistance against Aladeen. He has sentenced so many people to death—with a quick flourish of finger against throat—that they've founded a Little Wadiya neighborhood in New York City.

After watching Aladeen's life in Wadiya (He hires voluptuous women to serve as his guards/sex partners and pays celebrities to have sex with him but can't pay them enough to do what he really wants to do—cuddle), the dictator winds up in the Big Apple to address the United Nations, which has demanded that he personally appear before the organization to give assurances that he has nothing diabolical in mind. Instead, his most trusted aide Tamir (Ben Kingsley) sets up his murder (Aladeen walks the killer—also, by the way, a racist, anti-Semite, and sexist—through the reasons the tools meant to torture him are useless; one, he says, was outlawed in Saudi Arabia for being "too safe") and puts a bumbling simpleton named Efawadh (also Baron Cohen) in his place. Tamir wants to establish democracy in Wadiya so that he can sell the vast oil supplies there to the West.

Unrecognizable without his beard, Aladeen eventually joins up with Nadal (Jason Mantzoukas), Wadiya's former head nuclear scientist, to regain his power and meets Zoey (Anna Faris), the owner of an organic food market who tries way too hard to assert her liberal politics. She believes Aladeen is a political refugee; he cannot stand her but is still drawn to her. They share a romantic moment while delivering a baby on the store's floor, and director Larry Charles (who directed Baron Cohen's previous antics as fictional characters in the real world—this one is entirely fictitious) ensures that we see their love blossom by placing the camera inside the birth canal.

This is the tone of the film's humor, and screenwriters Baron Cohen, Alec Berg, David Mandel, and Jeff Schaffer attempt to gain those disbelieving laughs of shock at the horrifying things Aladeen says and does. It works for the most part because of (or despite) the fact that we know the character is barely half as threatening as he imagines himself (Instead of performing or overseeing acts of terrorism, he plays a video game about terrorists).

Perhaps the worst thing he does over the course of the film is being an accomplice to the decapitation of a corpse, which Nadal later uses as a puppet to scare him. Some of the other jokes are less sinister, like how Aladeen creates aliases from signs he spots around him. The more subversive jokes (for example, the way a pair of tourists on a helicopter sightseeing tour react to hearing an innocent conversation between Aladeen and Nadal in their native tongue about fireworks over the Statue of Liberty) culminate in a cynical speech at the UN that skewers our modern society (In other words, no one will confuse it with another famous speech from another comedy with "dictator" in the title).

The primary goal of the film is to take the air out of the bloated public images of those who would stand on the backs of an entire population because they feel short. The opening act of The Dictator does a fine job in that regard, and Baron Cohen's simplistic caricature has a robust enough personality to carry him through the rest of the fish-out-of-water story.

Copyright © 2012 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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