"Ah, America! Built by the blacks and owned by the Chinese!" —Admiral General Haffaz Aladeen of Wadiya
Sacha Baron Cohen's The Dictator is literally a take-no-prisoners comedy. Get on the bad side of Cohen's latest character, Admiral General Haffaz Aladeen, and out of your eyesight, he'll make a throat-slitting gesture indicating he wants you offed.
That running gag is one of the mildest in Cohen's willfully outrageous attempt to top his previous features with director Larry Charles: Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan and Brüno. Though The Dictator abandons the mock-documentary style of those films, the filmmakers strike pretty much the same comedic notes, to generally diminished returns.
Certainly in 2012, a brutal dictator qualifies as an easy target for comedy (that wasn't true in 1940, when Charlie Chaplin released The Great Dictator, to which The Dictator implicitly nods). The racist Aladeen allows Cohen to make another round of blistering satirical gags about still-thriving anti-Semitism and sexism, buttons Cohen pushed repeatedly with Borat. This time, Cohen also baits African-American outrage with an over-the-top sequence involving a black corpse and an absurd appropriation of "I Have a Dream" ("Oppressed at last...").
The premise sounds more promising than what Cohen and Charles deliver: Aladeen finds himself ousted by his uncle Tamir (Ben Kingsley) the long-suffering rightful heir to the dictatorship of fictional North African nation Wadiya. The Prince and the Pauper-style switcheroo of double Efawadh (also Cohen) leaves the real Aladeen lost in New York, and dependent on the kindness of stranger Zoey (Anna Faris), a Vegan anti-corporate feminist. While Tamir leverages a U.N. appearance and a move to democracy to get rich off oil money, Aladeen plots to reclaim his role.
Cohen's act wears thin with his "r"-rolling, blithely selfish Aladeen, and given the shrill scatology, The Dictator comes dangerously close to a bad Adam Sandler comedy (perhaps You Don't Mess with the Zohan). Still, The Dictator has several memorable moments, including a 9/11 run satirizing lingering "War on Terror" fears, and an absurd skit on a zip-line (capped with what's by now an old-hat nudity "shocker").
The Dictator comes packed with cameos from the comedy elite, but best-in-show may go to Jason Mantzoukas for his fairly subtle straight-man work as nuclear scientist/terrorist Nadal. Make no mistake, though: writers Cohen & Alec Berg & David Mandel & Jeff Schaffer keep the focus squarely on their star and, in the process, ask us to root for a racist, sexist rapist to achieve his goals, including winning the heart of the totally inappropriate, Free Earth Collective-running Zoey (what Aladeen really wants is a cuddle).
The undeniable charge to Cohen's subversion (old news though it may be) unexpectedly proves strongest when the star bites the hand that feeds him, by suggesting that Hollywood celebrities are literal prostitutes (for decades, rumors have suggested that a handful at any given time have been). The Dictator saves up its real nuclear-level threat for a climactic monologue, in which Aladeen indirectly demonstrates America's lack of personal freedom. On its own, this daring breach of the multiplex is almost enough to excuse the misfired gags that come before.
[This review first appeared in Palo Alto Weekly.]
Paramount sends home The Dictator in a Blu-ray + DVD + Digital Copy special edition featuring a new Banned & Unrated Cut (98m), the Theatrical Cut (83m), solid A/V specs and a smattering of extras. The hi-def transfer ably renders its digital source, with only minor and rare distractions (a bit of shimmering here, a touch of banding there) to a generally sharp and detailed image with wholly accurate color and excellent contrast and black level. The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix doesn't get tested very hard by the mostly ordinary demands of this comedy, but dialogue is always clear, music and effects are robust, and the separation gives a bit of fullness to the soundscape with some immersive ambience.
Fifteen "Deleted and Extended Scenes" (33:43, HD) include "Newsnight Interview," "Nuclear Diary," "Deathbed Flashback," "Assemble the Generals," "Meet Clayton," "Aladeen Steals Food," "Apple Store," "Death to Aladeen Restaurant," "Manhattan Zoo," "Funeral Parlor," "A Gift For Zoey," "Tit Fight," "The Birthing," "The Rooftop," and "A Final Word." Also included are "Best Love Song 'Your Money is on the Dresser' featuring Aladeen Music Video" (1:35, HD) and another extended scene, the "Larry King Interview" (2:49, HD).
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