Combustible Celluloid
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With: Sacha Baron Cohen, Anna Faris, Ben Kingsley, Jason Mantzoukas, Fred Armisen, John C. Reilly, Kevin Corrigan, Chris Elliott
Written by: Sacha Baron Cohen, Alec Berg, David Mandel, Jeff Schaffer
Directed by: Larry Charles
MPAA Rating: R for strong crude and sexual content, brief male nudity, language and some violent images
Running Time: 83
Date: 05/16/2012

The Dictator (2012)

2 Stars (out of 4)

Oppress to Play

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

It seems that Sacha Baron Cohen is now more of a successor to Mike Myers than he is to Charlie Chaplin. (Any comparison between The Dictator and The Great Dictator ends after their titles.) Cohen is gifted at voices and characters, but after that, he appears somewhat baffled as to where to go. Like Myers, he had a moment wherein everything seemed to crystallize: Myers with Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery (1997) and Cohen with Borat (2006). Cohen even snagged the Best Actor award from my organization, the San Francisco Film Critics Circle, for that performance. Better still, Cohen appeared to want to say a little something about America's stupidity and hypocrisy in an entertaining and non-preachy way.

But, alas, it was just a moment, and not a beginning. Cohen's follow-up BrĂ¼no (2009) was something significantly less; it became clear that was more interested in the shock factor of his jokes than in their content. His guest voice in the Madagascar films -- with their unshakable dedication to pop culture and poop jokes -- only confirmed this. Not to mention his earlier, unfunny persona as Ali G.

In The Dictator, Cohen has one impassioned, ironic speech detailing how, since 9/11, the America has behaved more like a dictatorship than a democracy. That's funny and clever, like a punchy political cartoon, but it's the only moment in the film -- aside from a few minor chuckles -- that feels alive.

The rest of the movie is more like a tired Roman Holiday (1953) retread, with a pampered, sheltered ruler suddenly loose in a foreign city (New York) and disguised as a normal citizen. He learns about life and love for the first time. Cohen plays Aladeen, the oppressor of the Republic of Wadiya. He gains the attention of the UN when he starts developing nuclear weapons. Reluctantly, he travels to New York to speak to the UN when he is kidnapped and replaced with a double. A cute activist (Anna Faris) comes to his rescue, and together with his former nuclear weapons chief Nadal (Jason Mantzoukas), they come up with a plan to take back Wadiya.

Amidst this connect-the-dots plot, Cohen throws in the usual sex and poop jokes, celebrity references, and weird jokes wherein the failed punchline is repeated again and again in the vain hope that laughs can eventually be coaxed. His Borat director Larry Charles is here again at the helm, and the movie feels lazy and middlebrow, without even the mockumentary format of Borat to disguise things. Perhaps worst of all is the disappointing misuse of Faris, who is a comic talent the equal of Cohen; she's relegated to being his "straight man."

The Dictator leaves the impression that Cohen has reached the bottom, with no way of ever climbing back up -- except one. He still lingers in the memory for his delightful character performance last fall in Martin Scorsese's Hugo. Perhaps if he can concentrate on things like that in the future, he can retain some of his dignity. That is, if dignity is something he cares about. If not, the other road will lead him to travesties like Myers' most recent efforts (see The Cat in the Hat and The Love Guru).
Best Buy Co, Inc.