May 16, 2012


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Written by: Mitch Salem
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THE DICTATOR:  Watch It At Home – Little Shock, No Awe


With Borat, Sacha Baron Cohen made one of the noisiest splashes into movie stardom of the past decade, daring and distinctive.  The question was whether he could follow it up.  And the answer, based on Bruno and the new THE DICTATOR, is not so much.

The protagonist of The Dictator, as you know if you’ve seen Cohen’s ubiquitous publicity campaign that’s been going on for months, is Admiral General Aladeen, despot of the fictional nation Wadiya.  He is, in other words, another idiot with a funny accent, much like Borat and Bruno before him.  The difference in The Dictator is that Aladeen works from a script–literally.  Unlike the largely improvised worlds of Cohen’s other movies, Dictator may have its unscripted moments, but it’s fundamentally filmed according to a screenplay by Cohen, Alec Berg, Jeff Schaffer and David Mandel.  Its cast is made up of professional actors rather than unwitting participants, as the other films were.  


Without his high-wire act of staying in outrageous character opposite people who aren’t in on the joke, Cohen loses his edge, and The Dictator is just a conventional, sometimes funny shambles of a comedy.  The plot is mostly a series of contrivances.  Aladeen, haplessly pursuing a nuclear program, is summoned to the United Nations to renounce war, which doesn’t intend to do.  But before he can make his speech, his uncle and trusted advisor Tamir, working with CIA operative John C. Reilly, take him captive, shave his trademark beard, and replace him with an even stupider double.  Although the double will say what the UN  wants and institute “democracy” in Wadiya, actually Tamir’s plot is to turn the country over to global oil companies, hurting the Wadiyan people far worrse than Aladeen ever did.

 Meanwhile, the beardless Admiral General can’t get anyone to recognize him for the feared monarch he is, and ends up working in a crunchy organic foods shop in Brooklyn, run by erstwhile liberal Zoey (Anna Faris).  As it coincidentally happens, she’s catering the ceremony where Aladeen’s double will hand the country to Tamir, so while employed by Zoey, Aladeen plots with his ex-nuclear engineer Nadal (Jason Mantzoukas) to regain his throne.

In all this, not too much hilarity ensues.  Aladeen must become a better person, and along the way fall in love with Zoey, who doesn’t shave her armpits and has short hair, imperfections he never would have permitted in his old life–and he’ll also run her business more effectively than she ever did.  As his disgust for her becomes affection (the movie walks a fine line between getting laughs from a moron’s misogyny and actually being misogynistic), Aladeen’s journey to goodness is ultimately as tiresome as it would be in a comedy with less profanity and glimpses of genitals.

Cohen wants Aladeen to be a hero, so corners are cut on all the points that initially made him a “shocking” lead.  (It turns out he never even really executed anyone.)  The movie is weak not because Cohen’s dictator really only wants to be loved, but because in movie terms, he deserves to be.  Toward the end Cohen has Aladeen deliver a “defense” of totalitarianism that’s so unambiguously Cohen’s own views on current US politics (valid as they are) that it feels like an outtake from The Colbert Report.  Aladeen might think he’s a brutal, vicious ruler, but honestly he wouldn’t hurt a fly, and so there’s nothing startling–or even very interesting–about rooting for him.

There are certainly laughs in The Dictator, thanks to Cohen and especially Mantzoukas, who gets many of the best lines.  Faris, though, is no more than a blanded-out love interest who could have come from a multicamera sitcom, and Kingsley is, well, he was great in Gandhi, but he’s no laugh riot.

In the framework of an ordinary scripted comedy, the sloppiness of the moviemaking around Cohen becomes much more obvious.  Director Larry Charles also helmed Borat and Bruno, but the cinema-verite style there covered over a lot of sins.  Here the performers aren’t even able to get much of a rhythm going, because scenes are choppily edited, seemingly around improvs that didn’t work. This kind of movie needs sharp craft and sophistication if it’s to succeed, and no one will mistake Charles for Ernst Lubitsch.

Where does The Dictator leave Sacha Baron Cohen?  He was hailed as the new Peter Sellers when Borat erupted, but has shown little in the way of range or control since then, merely changing accents to play variations of the same part.  He’s a hugely talented performer, but if he’s to have a career that lasts, he’ll need to show more tools in his belt than playing loud-mouth, arrogant oafs who talk funny.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."