Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Review: "The Dictator" is Sacha Baron Cohen at his provocative best

Film Rating: A–

“The Dictator” is a wonderful comedy filled with genuine surprises, but the greatest shock may be that Sacha Baron Cohen’s winning comedy formula – wildly unpredictable, gloriously offensive, socially conscious humor stemming from a morally repulsive (yet oddly lovable) protagonist – loses none of its power in the transition to a scripted, narrative format.  Stylistically, “The Dictator” is a huge departure from “Da Ali G Show” or the “Borat” film, which relied on documentary aesthetics and large numbers of unwilling civilian participants.  This film is instead entirely fake, made with professional cinematography, lavish staging, and recognizable comedic actors even in bit parts.  Yet the abrasive, shocking nature of Cohen’s humor hasn’t been diluted one iota; if anything, having control over all aspects of the production gives Cohen and director Larry Charles license to go even further, to hone in on their thematic targets with laser focus while creating real, compelling characters and gleefully satirizing Hollywood genre tropes.  The results are deliriously funny, and thoughtfully provocative, from start to finish.  Continue reading after the jump...

Ben Kingsley in "The Dictator"
Paramount’s marketing department says the film is “the heroic story of a dictator who risked his life to ensure that democracy would never come to the country he so lovingly oppressed.”  That’s a remarkably apt description, and that’s what I love about the story: it takes a standard Hollywood fish-out-of-water story and replaces the plucky, noble protagonist with an amalgamation of the world’s most evil men.  Admiral General Aladeen (Cohen) is the brutal tyrant of the fictional North African nation of Wadiya, who comes to New York to speak to the UN.  But his closest aide stages a coup, cutting off Aladeen’s beard to make him unrecognizable and replacing the Dictator with a dim-witted doppelganger, all so a democratic constitution can be written for Wadiya.  Forced out on the streets, Aladeen has only five days to work his way back to the top so he can stop freedom from corrupting his homeland. 

Anna Farris and Sacha Baron Cohen in "The Dictator"
The structure is half the film’s fun; it’s a direct inversion of the underdog story, with the bad guy fighting against all odds to keep the world bad.  It’s such a simple idea, but it takes some real stones to pull off.  Unlike Borat or Ali G, Aladeen isn’t a harmless ignoramus: he’s a powerful ignoramus, whose actions have tragic global consequences, and it takes a serious amount of dedication to put a character modeled after Suddam Hussein, Kim Jong Il, and Muammar Gaddafi at the center of a comedy.  Dedication, of course, is Cohen’s trademark, and in addition to inhabiting this character just as fully as his other creations, he and Charles are completely committed to the audacity of the joke. 

That means “The Dictator” is about as offensive as comedy can be, and the simple truth is you’re either going to love feeling like a terrible human being for laughing, or you’re going to despise every second.  If you’ve seen “Borat,” you know which camp you’re in.  Like that character, Aladeen says and does truly deplorable things, from his attitude towards women, Israel, and democracy to the offhand way he orders executions, and every moment is played with exuberant levels of reckless abandon.  With Borat, Ali G, and Bruno, Cohen’s target was ignorance, but here, he’s mining comedy from far more malicious forces, and the jokes are proportionally riskier.  Personally, I get a kick out of it; I love being surprised by comedy, and it’s so genuinely shocking to watch a fake Middle-eastern despot play through historical terrorist attacks on the Nintendo Wii, for instance, that I can’t help but double over with laughter.  And that’s just one of the early jokes.  “The Dictator” is the rare comedy that gets significantly better as it goes along, because Cohen just keeps pushing the joke further and further, wringing out every last piece of comic mileage by overstepping every politically correct boundary in sight.  The further he goes, the more I laugh, and if you’re on board with that style of humor, chances are you’ll agree. 

But I would never condone “The Dictator” if it offended without purpose.  Like all of Cohen’s work, the film is socially conscious from the get-go; with historical periods of uprise like the Arab Spring fresh in everyone’s mind, the film feels extremely timely.  Aladeen isn’t a random offense-machine, but a thoughtfully calculated summation of all the world’s most brutal leaders, dialed up to eleven to highlight how ridiculous and sad it is that people like this actually exist.  If Cohen’s making fun of anybody, it’s not women or Jews or homosexuals, but the tyrants who actually espouse such philosophy.  For much of the film, this appears to be as far as Cohen is willing to go in terms of social commentary, but the last act is filled with intelligent insight about how power takes on so many outrageous, equally destructive forms in our modern world.  The entire film essentially builds to one spectacularly audacious, disturbingly honest joke about American hypocrisy, one that made people in my theatre visibly and audibly uncomfortable.  Rightfully so, I should say.  The moment is so perfectly executed that it single-handedly raised my prospective letter grade from a B+ to an A–.

Anna Farris as Zoey in "The Dictator"
One of the film’s other primary strokes of comic genius comes in putting Aladeen through the steps of a traditional romantic comedy, where he finds love in the most unexpected of places.  For a brutal dictator, that means falling for a liberal vegan feminist who attends freedom rallies and manages a shop staffed by political refugees.  It’s a solid joke no matter what, but as the love interest, it’s Anna Farris who sells this entire part of the film.  She’s a hugely talented actress (even if she has spent a depressing amount of her career dallying in bad comedies), and I love the bubbly, optimistic energy she brings to the proceedings.  Her gleeful sense of love and acceptance clashes gloriously with Aladeen’s gleeful sense of oppression and terror, and Cohen and Farris share truly remarkable chemistry.  This is the most Cohen has ever had to rely on another performer in one of his movies, and the relationship’s comedic success speaks strongly to Farris’ ability to keep up with this crazy British man saying horrible things in a funny voice. 

I can’t say enough good things about Larry Charles’ direction either; one thing you don’t sense from the trailers is that “The Dictator” is a big movie.  It’s filmed in the wide 2.35:1 aspect ratio, and Charles fills that frame with hilariously lavish Wadiyan sets, big crowds, and New York City streets.  The film has real scope, something Cohen and Charles haven’t quite achieved before, and it’s also surprisingly well paced.  At under eighty minutes (sans credits), it never feels too short or too long, and no joke or plot development seems out of place.  It’s entirely efficient, and all the better for it. 

Sacha Baron Cohen as Admiral General Aladeen
Only time will tell where “The Dictator” falls in Cohen’s larger canon – like “Borat,” it will probably lose a certain degree of power once one is familiar with the jokes – but for now, I think it’s the most structurally sound project he’s ever made.  Telling an actual story with multiple well-drawn characters seems like a natural evolution of his comic style, and a hugely satisfying one as well.  Due to the nature of the humor, it’s not a film I can comfortably recommend to all viewers, but I can at least assure you I found it riotously funny, and pleasingly thought-provoking, on just about every level.  Provided provocative comedy is your thing, “The Dictator” is one of the most welcome surprises of 2012. 

This review was originally published on May 10th. It has been moved up to coincide with today's theatrical release.  

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