At a first glance, Sacha Baron Cohen‘s “The Dictator” almost seems too easy. Another accent, another elaborate costume, more manscaping and this time with the softball target of despotic leaders — it almost seemed as if the comic actor was pouring an ocean of fish into a tiny thimble and then pointing a comedy bazooka at it. And for the first fifteen to twenty minutes, “The Dictator” is kind of that obvious, and as a result, a bit uneven. But once the movie really finds its groove, Cohen’s latest character creation easily stands up with his best work. Frequently laugh out loud funny, button pushing, and the rare comedy that actually gets more enjoyable as it goes on, “The Dictator” delivers the goods. All hail Admiral General Aladeen!
In an era when nearly every funny moment in a comedy is released in clips and trailers beforehand (we’re looking at you “21 Jump Street“), Paramount should be (mostly) commended for keeping the biggest laughs, cameos and even the general plot, out of the marketing. Even the red band trailer only shows portions of sequenes that are much longer and funnier in the actual movie. And keeping in that spirit, we’ll stay spoiler-free and just give you the general gist of it. As you know, Cohen plays Admiral General Aladeen, the great leader of the north African nation of Wadiya, who is forced to go to the U.N. to answer questions about his nation’s nuclear program under the threat of NATO airstrikes. Once he’s there, he’s betrayed, has his luxurious beard shaved off, his clothes stolen and, while he escapes death, he winds up lost and unrecognized in Manhattan. Meanwhile, one of his simple-minded body doubles is used as a puppet by Aladeen’s rival for power, to usher in democracy in Wadiya and sell the nation’s oil reserves to foreign interests. The ticking clock is that the new Wadiyan constitution will be signed in a few days bringing in free elections, and General Aladeen must find a way to stop it. And that’s about it.
Cohen and the team of writers who put this together wisely know that in a movie like this, the plot is pretty much secondary and just the bare framework for Cohen to operate in. So the result is a pretty loose and freewheeling comedy that stays to the general course, but has the freedom to take many rewarding comedic digressions without feeling like it has no sense of direction. Aladeen — or as he calls himself Allison Burgers — winds up working at a vegan, feminist, gender friendly, organic grocer run by Zoey (or as he likes to say hilariously in his fractured English, Zo-ayyyyuhhhhh), played by Anna Faris. The actress needs to be commended here for really throwing herself into a role where she’s more or less the straight woman to Cohen. On top of that, she looks terrible stuck in stereotypical activisit/feminist attire that requries a butch haircut, hairy armpits, and overalls. But Faris is game and more importantly is able to counter Cohen’s antics to keep the tone balanced and prevent it from tipping into farce.
Indeed, the film walks a highwire tightrope for two-thirds of the picture and pretty much nails it. As we mentioned, the opening of “The Dictator” is easily the shakiest section and it’s easy to see why. With Aladeen in his native land of Wadiya, seeing Cohen play a crazed leader actually winds up coming across more like a mediocre “Saturday Night Live” skit. So, it’s hardly surprising that when Aladeen lands in New York City and finds his belief systems and attitudes challenged, the movie really takes off. Aladeen’s casual sexism and racism make for some of the absolutely hugest laughs the movie gets and again, Cohen knows exactly how far to bring it to the line — and even sometimes step over it — while still landing on the right side of funny. Even the grossout humor, of which there is some (piss, poop and a dick all make appearances), is remarkably dialed back (for what it is) considering what we’ve seen on screens over the last couple of years, and is no less effective for it.
But Cohen is only as good as the people around him, and we’ve already mentioned Faris, but the real MVP, and someone who we hope gets a major boost out of this movie, is Jason Mantzoukas (probably best known to U.S. audiences as the awesomely douchetacular Dennis Feinstein on “Parks & Recreation“). In “The Dictator,” he plays the formal head of the Wadiyan nuclear program who winds up running into Aladeen in Little Wadiya and agrees to help him on his quest to maintain his rule over the country and destroy their shot at democracy. It’s easy to see why Cohen picked him to essentially co-star in the movie. His sense of comic timing is so unbelievably sharp, and his mix of disbelief, loyalty and enthusiasm wrings out some laughs just as big as the ones Cohen gets. He falls into a great rhythm with Cohen and like Faris, really helps anchor the movie when it could so easily spin right out of control.
And that’s really the operative word here: “control.” There is a lot that was clearly left on the cutting room floor (by our watch, the movie runs barely 90 minutes long and is all the better for it), but we’re sure will make great Blu-ray extras. Director Larry Charles may have had to cut some precious time from folks like Kevin Corrigan, Chris Parnell and J.B. Smoove (who does show up during the credits in the blooper reel/extra scenes bit) but it’s to the benefit of the movie, which gets in and out in the perfect amount of time (it should be noted B.J. Novak who was cast is nowhere to be seen; also, don’t let anyone spoil the cameos for you).
We wondered if Sacha Baron Cohen would be as funny constrained to the pages of the script, rather than being able to find real world laughs in the faux-doc style of “Borat” and “Bruno.” But oddly enough, “The Dictator” gives him arguably even more freedom, allowing his fertile and demented imagination to dream up scenarios he could never encounter in character in real life. And you get that giddy sense of outrageousness all through “The Dictator.” From the character of Aladeen himself to the smaller details, like the “Wadiyan” soundtrack of cover versions of popular songs (“Everybody Hurts” is just the start). Providing deep belly laughs the way few comedies do, Sacha Baron Cohen has done it again in what is easily a movie as funny as “Borat.” It looks like Hollywood better watch out, because the great nation of Wadiya has a new comedy star, and his name is Admiral General Aladeen. [B+]