Sacha Baron Cohen is a bit of an odd duck. An understatement, true, but he’s an outlier as a lead in studio comedies because thus far, instead of receiving a script and playing a character, he’s been making features based on characters created for his short lived HBO show. From the appropriately titled Da Ali G Show, Baron Cohen’s alter egos Borat and Bruno sprang forth assaulting the minds, eyes and morals of moviegoers the world over in what were essentially feature-length sketch shows more so than films (though Borat does get extra credit for the Pam Anderson narrative thread).
Cohen’s new studio comedy, The Dictator, represents a departure from his norm and thus a challenge. Despite his involvement in the writing process, this wasn’t a persona he was used to slipping in and out of for years. Moreover, this would supposedly be a film with a narrative, filled with Cohen’s trademark humor for sure, but an actual story with a beginning, middle and end. All that remained to be seen was whether or not Cohen could pull that off.
Despite being the ruler of Wadiya, a totally, definitely, not-at-all fake place somewhere in the middle East, Admiral General Aladeen is starting to get bored. His constant romantic interludes with Western celebrities, his fleet of gold plated Hummers, even his habit of sentencing random people to death just doesn’t fill him with joy like it used too. His melancholy happens to come about around the same time that the UN more or less demands that he address them about his nuclear weapons program. Sensing an opportunity, Tamir (Ben Kingsley), Aladeen’s second in command and the rightful heir, arranges for Aladeen to be murdered in the US and replaced with a double. Aladeen escapes but loses his trademark beard so no one recognizes him. He meets Zooey (Anna Faris), a super hippie who owns a mom and pop Whole Foods in Brooklyn, at a UN protest. Aladeen must team up with Zooey in his covert attempt to regain power.
If the story sounds familiar that’s because, as the intrepid Brian Salisbury pointed out, many of its plot points seem to come from either Coming to America or Trading Places. There are far worse places to mine for comedy gold than 80s Eddie Murphy and thus this cribbing mostly works out. The film does well to stick to the plot fairly closely, not allowing for random sketches or bits, but finding ways to work the comedy into the story. Obviously the trailer showcased the scene where Aladeen and one of his former top scientists scout the hotel where Tamir and the double are staying by taking a helicopter tour of NYC with two average American tourists. This is a good example of the writers figuring out a way to work what could have been a random sketch into a fairly reasonable plot point. It may sound a bit shoe horned, but it actually flowed quite nicely.While it’s certainly not a complicated narrative by any means, it’s nice to see that Cohen can still work effectively within those boundaries.
And he is pretty effective overall. There are plenty of great, earned laughs. Perhaps the best of these is the running gag about Aladeen’s predilection for having those around him executed at the drop of a hat. Others include the Wadiyan definition(s) of Aladeen, his conversation with his first double and a discussion with his top scientists about the shape of his nuke. These are just a handful of examples of the comedy firing on all cylinders, but even most of the lesser jokes are good enough to earn a chuckle or two.
Special mention should be made of Jason Mantzoukas, who plays Nadal, Aladeen’s former top scientist from the helicopter scene. Fans of the hilarious FX show The League will recognize Jason as Rafi, Ruxin’s batshit insane brother-in-law. Mantzoukas really anchors the second half of the film, keeping Aladeen on track and giving Cohen a strong comedic presence to play off of. He is clearly a talented comedian, and it’s nice to see him starting to get a chance to prove that fact in bigger roles.
Sadly, it’s not all roses. There are two main areas where the film falters; the few times it delves into gross out humor and the more numerous times Anna Faris was on screen. First, the grossout stuff. It just doesn’t work, possibly because we’ve seen so much grossout humor at this point as to become immune to it and possibly because it just plain isn’t funny. Thankfully, its use is mostly few and far between and aside from extended pregnancy sequence, relatively short as well. As for Faris, she’s just flat like an opened can of Diet Coke you find in the back of the fridge. While she’s been able to pull off comedy well in other films, she just seems to be lost here. Certainly her character is an over-the-top stereotype meant to be annoying and made up to look as unattractive as possible - giving Cohen ample opportunity to compare her to a young boy. Whether it’s the character as written or Faris’ performance, or more likely a combination of both, most of her scenes just tend to drag the movie down and play host to a lot of the jokes that don’t work.
Ultimately, The Dictator is a silly film that mostly succeeds as a comedy. The jokes don’t always work but when they do they’re hilarious and the hit to miss ratio is quite high. While Faris seems to hamper the film, it’s not enough to sour the movie as a whole. It’s enjoyable and very funny if slightly forgettable.
The Upside: Cohen’s comedy works just as well if not better in service of a traditional narrative. Jason Mantzoukas is great, but the best part of the whole thing may be the soundtrack, taking popular songs and cleverly rewriting the lyrics.
The Downside: Not all of the jokes are winners, particularly those that rely on gross out humor. Anna Farris just isn’t funny.
On the Side: Admiral General Aladeen was spotted today on a yacht in Cannes!