By Sherry Lipp
This article first published as Blu-ray Review: The Dictator (2012) on BlogCritics.org.
Sacha Baron Cohen has never been afraid of pushing the limits of comedy. His Da Ali G Show was a hilarious look at people’s reactions in situations of escalating awkwardness. Disguised as faux hip-hop gangsta Ali G, flamboyant homosexual fashion designer Bruno, or clueless Kazakhstani journalist Borat, Cohen was able to extract very real responses from actual interview subjects. Cohen captured that spirit in the feature films Borat (2006) and Bruno (2009).
With his new film, The Dictator Cohen goes for a fish-out-of-water, stranger in a foreign land story. Unlike Borat and Brüno, The Dictator is a narrative constructed out of entirely fictional situations and characters. There are no interviews or encounters with real people. Everyone is an actor, and that is partly where the movie comes up short. The Dictator tries too hard to be funny, while feeling like a stale rehash of Adam Sandler’s much funnier You Don’t Mess with the Zohan. While there are a few laughs here and there, the film ultimately fails on all counts.
Before Borat, Cohen brought his character Ali G to the big screen in Ali G Indahouse (2002). That film placed the character in a fictional plot revolving around government conspiracies. It had little to do with the Ali G of the Da Ali G Show. It was a pretty forgettable movie, completely missing the mark of the show. While that film at least had a familiar character in Ali G, The Dictator is starting from scratch. Cohen’s attendance of various awards shows dressed as his dictator character (prior to the film’s release) left little impression on the public. Unlike Ali G, Borat, or Bruno, there isn’t anything real about the character of the dictator. As outrageous as those other characters were, there was still that spark of relatability, at least in terms of Cohen’s hapless targets of humiliation.
In The Dictator, Cohen plays Admiral General Aladeen, a ruthless tyrant who is developing weapons of mass destruction. Because of this threat, Aladeen must appear before the United Nations to prevent a military strike against his country (the fictional Republic of Wadiya). Aladeen travels to New York, but never makes his appearance. It seems there are people close to him who would like to see him ousted. Aladeen is stripped of his true identity and left alone on the streets of New York. He is soon befriended by Zoey (Anna Faris), a do-gooder who protests injustice in the world and runs an organic grocery store. Aladeen, now known as Allison Burgers (in one of the funnier running jokes of the movie), takes a job at the store while plotting to regain his dictatorship from the imposter Efawadh (also Cohen).
It’s not a bad premise. The idea of a dictator working in a New York City shop has a lot of potential. Unfortunately most of the jokes fall flat. As in Borat, there is a huge culture clash. What was funniest about Borat were people’s reactions to him. It’s funny to watch just how accepting people are of unusual behavior simply because someone is foreign. As in, “It’s perfectly acceptable for you to show naked pictures of your wife to complete strangers in your ‘backward’ country, but we don’t do that here.” These types of genuinely awkward exchanges are missing from The Dictator, replaced with reactions that are usually too obvious and predictable. In fact, he interacts with relatively few people outside of Zoey. Most of the jokes are so over the top they lose their humor.
Where the film works better is in the subtler moments. His interactions with an aide named Clayton (John C. Reilly) work really well. Reilly arguably has the funniest moments in the entire movie, but he is woefully underused. The usually funny Anna Faris fails to bring much spark to her role. She is mostly in place as the unlikely romantic interest for Aladeen. In the end, I found it all a little boring, a string of gags with a story that failed to sustain interest.
The Dictator looks unremarkable on Blu-ray with a 1080p AVC-encoded transfer framed at 2.40:1. The digital cinematography by Lawrence Sher is looks okay most of the time, though clarity and detail are never that strong. The image isn’t really film-like, with harsh contrasts and poorly-defined colors. The unrated version apparently wasn’t color-timed very carefully, as the additional shots don’t mesh well with the theatrical footage. It’s not terrible, just not great in any way. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio mix is also passable for a dialogue-driven comedy. The most important part, by far, is dialogue and there are no problems in that department. Surround activity is limited mostly to large crowd scenes. There isn’t much bass, resulting in a thin overall sound. It’s fine, there just isn’t much to the mix.
There aren’t many special features, but the main one is a selection of 33 minutes of deleted and extended scenes. Some of these are included in the unrated cut of the film. Most of the scenes were cut for good reason, but a few are pretty funny. The music video for “Your Money is on the Dresser” and an extended version of the Larry King interview are the only other features. A standard DVD is included in the combo pack.
The problem is, quite a few of The Dictator’s jokes result in groans rather than laughs, too silly to even be shocking or humorously offensive. “Daring” jokes about the Munich Olympics or 9/11 fail to leave any impact, be it laughs, outrage, or otherwise. Overall The Dictator is a forgettable disappointment from the talented Sacha Baron Cohen.