Review: The Dictator

Sacha Baron Cohen is one-of-a-kind. Eschewing all expectations and sparing no one, his satire is consistently of the highest order starting from his breakthrough with Da Ali G Show on HBO, and leading through his cinematic explorations, Borat and Bruno. Time and again, his uproarious schtick serves as a subtle yet precise observation of contemporary American culture. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that his next trajectory aimed at international waters. With the civilian uprisings all over the Middle East, The Dictator takes a direct look at the lunacy of these regimes through Cohen’s outlandish lens. Although The Dictator stands as the weakest of Cohen’s efforts to date, the comic’s savage wit and political instincts remain sharp as ever.

In contrast to his previous films, an immediate drawback of The Dictator comes from the fact that its narrative is completely prefabricated. Where Borat and Bruno seamlessly blended veracity with artifice, The Dictator is a full on narrative with no documentary aspects present. Given his current popularity, Cohen was unlikely to pursue his verite style again, but his new efforts come up short. Granted, the narrative he tells here of Admiral General Aladeen here is quite simple, as were his previous efforts, but it comes at the cost of fewer narrative surprises. Arriving to the New York City in order to make a declaration to the U.N. concerning the ruthlessness of his regime, Aladeen finds himself kidnapped and his beard shaved off, making him unrecognizable, and thus, unable to affirm his identity. It is not unusual for Cohen to throw his protagonists in outrageous circumstances, and the same is true here. The narrative takes many interesting and occasionally comedic turns, all of which are actually integral to the plot and the development of Aladeen as a character. However, much of it feels tacked on and unnatural. In contrast to the raw and savage qualities of Borat and Bruno, there is a formality with the framing and structure that makes everything feel stilted.

For all of the film’s narrative familiarity and character obligations, Cohen’s eye and ear for satire stands as the strongest aspect of the film. Whether preying upon Americans’ fear of Muslims in a highlight helicopter ride, or pointing out the haunting similarities between America’s current democracy and totalitarian regimes, Cohen’s film truly takes a look at the bigger picture through comedy and never demeans itself. This is what separates his comedy from all others in the pack: it always is meaningful and relevant. Sure, one can make fun of almost anything, but to simultaneously enlighten and entertain is a rarity in the realm of comedy, and Cohen succeeds yet again on that front. Of course, few of the jokes stick the landing in this film, and this is once again an aspect of having a complete script to work off of. Several scenes are quite memorable, but not enough to salvage the film’s laugh-per-minute factor. Having watched so many of Cohen’s other personalities, his greatest talent is his improvisation with anyone and everyone. The fact that The Dictator sticks to its script keeps the film from any improvised moments, and so the film once again slogs from scene to scene without nearly the same amount of urgency and enthusiasm present in Borat and Bruno. Cohen’s career following The Dictator must be carved through work as a character actor. He can carry a film on his own, yes, but only when he relies upon himself. Despite these issues, The Dictator continues to prove that Sacha Baron Cohen is a great comedian and satirist of the modern era, even as memorable and relevant as Chaplin was to the silent era. He might not consistently hit the mark comedically, but with his observations on modern society, its always  a bullseye.

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~ by romancinema on May 29, 2012.

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