Review: ‘The Dictator’ marks a significant shift in style for Sacha Baron Cohen

Sacha Baron Cohen has spent the last few weeks in constant salesman mode, appearing on talk shows and in public as Admiral General Aladeen, the main character in his new film “The Dictator,” and while this is standard operating procedure for Cohen when he’s got a film coming out, it may be a miscalculation this time.  I think “The Dictator” is funny, frequently very funny, but it’s a very different film than “Borat” or “Bruno,” and this whole living-in-character thing may be sending the wrong message to audiences.

As I observed in my early report on the film from CinemaCon in Las Vegas
, it’s important to note that this is a scripted comedy where everyone in the film is in on the joke.  This is a far more standard comedy than Cohen’s earlier films, and it’s an important jump for Cohen to make as a performer.  I’m on the record as a fan of both “Borat” and “Bruno,” and I think they’re remarkable as examples of performance art.  Those movies have victims, though, and that’s something you just have to accept if you’re going to watch them.  Cohen created these characters that he would then drop into reality to see what happened when people bounced off of them, and much of the point was to draw people out, to expose their feelings about foreigners or gays or to explore racial tensions.  They are impressive and even dangerous at times, and they felt necessary when they were made.

But “The Dictator” is something different for Cohen, something much more akin to the failed “Ali G In Da House” which was his first major movie.  Based very loosely on a book written by Saddam Hussein, this is a “Prince and the Pauper” riff about the military dictator who is the head of a small African nation who is replaced by a patsy during a trip to the United States.  There’s nothing about the movie that is meant to be “real,” and as a result, the film is far less interested in creating confrontational situations and instead keeps the focus on Aladeen.  He is a despicable person, witless and cruel and petty, and in a typical Hollywood film, this would be about him learning to be a better leader and growing past the flaws that are established at the start of the film.

Yeah, Cohen doesn’t really seem interested in that.  More than anything, it feels like the victim this time is the formula that most Hollywood comedies follow.  The “lessons” that are learned by Aladeen are completely wrong, and every time the film moves towards a familiar formula beat, it intentionally subverts that, and some of the laughs come from recognizing just how completely the film is uninterested in being “regular.”  The love story involving female lead Anna Faris, is similarly turned inside out.  She plays an androgynous radical hippie type, and while a standard Hollywood film would have the moment where she is transformed into a the more conventionally beautiful model and Aladeen realizes how he feels about her, this film just doesn’t handle it that way.

What I like most about Cohen is the fact that he has no boundaries at all.  There are jokes in this film that land with a thud, but there are so many jokes thrown at the viewer that it doesn’t really matter.  This is the sort of comedy where the gasp is as important as the laugh, and Cohen earns both repeatedly.  Aladeen’s unchanging nature is important, because it’s a refutation of the idea that lead characters have to change in a film.  

It’s also my problem with Cohen doing all of his media appearances in character.  I don’t like Aladeen.  I don’t need to just to laugh at the film, but when he’s the only spokesman for the movie, it’s not very inviting.  Borat may be a xenophobic oddball, but he’s endearing, and while Bruno is self-involved and Euro-phony, he has a fearless charisma that makes him compelling.  In those cases, it made sense to have him in character because those characters interacted with real people in real settings.  Cohen can’t really play Aladeen fully in his appearances right now.  He can’t have talk show hosts executed.  He can’t be as racist and sexist as he is in the film.  And even toned down a bit, Aladeen is still a creep, and when he’s the one speaking for the film, it’s not terribly inviting.  At this point, I’m curious about Cohen himself and his process, and I’d rather see him do an interview than the character.

In the reality created by writers Alec Berg, David Mandel and Jeff Schaffer, along with director Larry Charles, Aladeen can order assassinations every few minutes and pay Megan Fox for sex and coast along, blissfully without any sense of the world around him.  I think if anything throws viewers, it will be that they’re used to seeing Cohen’s characters dropped into the real world, and here, the world itself is as exaggerated and bizarre as Aladeen.  The film flies by, and there is a speech toward the end of the film by Cohen that is as scathingly angry and laser-accurate as anything he’s done.  The unpleasant truth at the center of the film is that as outrageous as Cohen behaves as Aladeen, he’s still less outrageous than Kim Jong Il or Saddam Hussein.  The idea that we really have these guys, these military or religious leaders who treat an entire nation like a personal playground where they can work out their particular pathologies, is hard to process, and by offering up this portrait, Cohen seems to be doing his part to pants them, hold them up for well-deserved ridicule.  I never felt like Borat or Bruno were meant to be targets for our scorn, but Aladeen is never played with a redeeming side like those characters.

Cohen and his co-star Jason Mantzoukas have a very strong and funny chemistry, and they play a lot of the film’s best scenes together.  Anna Faris brings that same level of commitment that she always brings, and she earns some big laughs in the film.  As with any rapid-fire comedy, supporting players get a chance to show up, score a few laughs, and then they’re gone, and there’s one sequence involving Kathryn Hahn that is so deranged both in conception and execution that I’m frankly amazed the film got its R rating without more edits.  It’s a good-looking film, and while there’s a somewhat scattershot rhythm to the overall narrative, each sequence works well on its own.

“The Dictator” may well end up being an important moment for Cohen in his own personal growth, and the reception to the film might have a direct influence on what sort of films he makes from this point forward.  I just want him to continue to create characters that intrigue him and that provoke response, big characters, because the way he commits to them is impressive every time out.  He certainly found a rich vein of material to play with this time around, and I greatly enjoyed seeing him add Aladeen to the roster of memorable characters into which he’s vanished.

“The Dictator” opens everywhere Wednesday, May 16th.