Kinda-Sorta Funny in a Who-Caresy Sort of Way
Patton Oswalt used to have a bit about going to open mics when he was a younger comedian, saying there were essentially three types of performers you’d see there: people who had a voice and potential, people who were funny-but-who-cares, and lunatics. Sacha Cohen always used to seem like an intriguing 50-50 combo of potential genius and complete lunatic, and that makes it all the more disappointing to see him in The Dictator, the ultimate “funny, but who cares” movie. He even reuses some of his old jokes, like the one about how a woman in politics is like a monkey flying a plane. (Here, it’s a woman in education is like a monkey on roller skates).
I liked that joke a lot when it was in Borat, but you know a joke’s not specific when it can be used for two different characters. The Dictator is just the broadest of broad comedy. It’s like a 90-minute MTV Movie Awards sketch. Its one saving grace is that it spends the first bit so drastically lowering your expectations that you eventually accept the hammy inconsistency enough that by the end you can just chuckle along with the jokes that are so-so (and if you’ve read my writing on this website, you know I have no problem with a so-so joke). I did enjoy the shot from inside Kathryn Hahn’s vagina. That was a highlight.
It’s hard to compare documentary-style comedies like Borat or Bruno to the fully-scripted Dictator, because with the former, the plot can be the most basic, predictable framework, and that’s okay, because with people who aren’t in on the joke always standing around, there’s always the possibility of something unexpected happening. That element doesn’t exist in The Dictator, but even if we’re comparing apples to apples, the fully-staged, “running of the Jew” scene in Borat is 100 times funnier than anything in The Dictator. That was creative, wildly politically incorrect, and above all, specific. Making fun of a Muslim strongman isn’t even politically incorrect. In fact it’s probably the most politically correct. The Dictator just couches all its jokes in vulgarity to make it seem politically incorrect. It’s kind of like shitty fake punk, where you scratch your pick across the strings and grimace even though the song’s about holding hands with girls at the Dairy Queen. Jokes in The Dictator, like Admiral Aladeen saying he wants to get home so he can watch “The Real Housewives of Ahmadinehulalabajad” just don’t have the same punch as throwing money at cockroaches in case the Jews are shapeshifters. I love poop/fart/vagina humor, but less so when it’s just a crutch to prop up lazy pop culture references. HAHA, FUNNY ACCENTS AND LINDSAY LOHAN! Honestly, how much different is that than Ashton Kutcher’s Pop Chips ad? Other than that Sacha Cohen is a talented comedian and Ashton Kutcher is a buffoon, and that beard-face is acceptable while brown-face isn’t, they’re actually pretty similar.
The supporting cast, from Anna Faris as Aladeen’s hippie love interest, to Jason Mantzoukas as his former nuclear scientist, are all fully capable, and great at what they do, but the movie just doesn’t have much of a heart. And I don’t mean a heart like they’re all going to pledge allegiance to God, America, marriage, puppy dogs, and ice cream at the end like some Tim Allen vehicle, I mean “a heart” as in a recognizable human touch on the part of the creator (creator of the movie, not God). Every scene in The Dictator throws five jokes at you, between two and two and a half of which are actually funny. The percentage keeps improving throughout the movie to the point where it goes from nearly intolerable at the beginning to pleasantly watchable by the end, but there’s such a chasm between decent gags and horrible ones that it starts to feel focus-grouped. Soulless, like you can’t accept that the same person could’ve written both types of jokes. It feels like a committee of writers going “ANYTHING FUNNY GO HERE,” and deciding which jokes stay in the movie by measuring applause.
The Dictator isn’t a satire of anything in particular, but that’s okay. Comedy doesn’t need an agenda. Personality, that’s what separates this from something equally silly, like say, Stepbrothers. That felt like people having fun, not like people making a product, which The Dictator kind of does. I guess what I’m saying is, when I get chuckle-raped, I want it to feel like it was just for me, not like I’m just another clown-John, another notch on the slide-whistle.
I rate it three mehs fully shrugged. (C+, say).