“In loving memory of Kim Jong-il”
I enjoyed Sacha Baron Cohen’s voice characterizations in the “Madagascar” cartoons and his performance as the station inspector in Martin Scorcese’s “Hugo.” I never cared as much for him left to his own devices, however, as in the “Borat” and “Bruno” movies, exercises in gross political incorrectness. However, this isn’t to say I didn’t find any number of bits in “Borat” pretty funny. I just found the movie overall uneven. Which brings us to his 2012 release “The Dictator,” in small part a parody of Chaplin’s “The Great Dictator” and in the main a satire on international politics and American manners, which is more wildly uneven than his previous efforts. Worse, it’s not as politically incorrect, just largely dull.
This time out Cohen plays Admiral-General Aladeen, the leader of a rogue North African nation called Wadiya, which currently poses a nuclear threat to the world. Aladeen (a play, obviously, on Aladdin), may, in fact, be “the most dangerous man in the entire world.” That’s because he’s an egotistical idiot.
The filmmakers do the first few minutes of the movie in mock documentary style, starting with a brief Larry King interview. It’s all very cute and innocuous, reminding one of Woody Allen’s first movie, “Take the Money and Run,” but not as funny. This is Cohen in a lightweight mood, taking very few chances, instead relying on only mildly irreverant humor; for example, Aladeen can’t keep a straight face when he talks about using nuclear power only for peaceful purposes.
Cute, though, doesn’t always translate to funny. Aladeen wants his rocket scientists to design a “pointy” atomic missile because he thinks it would look more intimating, the way he says it does in the animated movies he’s seen. The filmmakers pursue this joke relentlessly, hammering a simple little gag into a tiring, senseless affair.
Anyway, the United Nations issues Aladeen an ultimatum: He must address the General Assembly in New York or risk military action against him. So, he goes to America, where most of the story takes place. An aborted assassination attempt leaves Aladeen in the streets without a beard, and no one recognizes him. The bulk of the movie then consists of his actions in the city as he learns about the U.S. firsthand. This allows Cohen to do what he did in “Borat”: have a person foreign to the country visit and comment satirically on American culture.
But Cohen has done this before. In order for the comedy to work as it should, it either had to be very witty and clever or more outrageous than it is here. It’s neither. Although Cohen again co-wrote the script, as he did “Borat” and “Bruno,” and although he has the same director back, Larry Charles, the humor in “The Dictator” seems routine and weak, sometimes resorting only to slapstick; and the filmmakers confine the outrageousness to a couple of pee gags, a masturbation joke, and a few sexual references. Indeed, most of the film is fairly gentle in its political, social, and personal jabs, even in the unrated version that I watched, with about fifteen minutes of extra material not found in the theatrical version.
Cohen is smart enough to surround himself with some good people in the film, so at least the audience can recognize a few familiar faces. Ben Kingsley plays Aladeen’s chief counselor, looking and acting like Jafar from “Aladdin.” Anna Faris plays Aladeen’s romantic interest, an American feminist caterer he meets in New York. John C. Reilly, Edward Norton, and Garry Shandling get minor roles or cameos just for the fun of it. Every little bit helps.
Not that some of the humor doesn’t work: A woman with giant killer breasts is funny for a moment, but then the joke goes on for much too long and quickly wears thin. And the line “Where are the rebel bases?” during an intense childbirth scene made me laugh. Yet it was the first real laugh all film after a couple of mild chuckles.
By the final third of the movie, “The Dictator” actually becomes rather sentimental, almost shamelessly so for a film that could have used more wit, more bite. The result is something like watching a typical television sitcom with just a little more titillation thrown in. If we’re going with the TV allusion, I’d rather have seen more of the wit of “The Newsroom,” an HBO series with more subtle, incisive, forceful humor. Or maybe a sharper stick.
Paramount engineers use a dual-layer BD50 and an MPEG-4/AVC codec to reproduce the movie in its original theatrical aspect ratio of 2.35:1. Nevertheless, because the filmmakers shot the picture digitally, we get all the worst of the medium. The image is suitably bright but slightly soft and blurred. It is also extremely clean, with virtually no grain. Yet, like most digital movie photography, the picture looks flat, lifeless, and antiseptic. As I watched it, I kept thinking my glasses needed cleaning.
The lossless 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio is loud. Beyond the dialogue we get mostly music. Which is loud rap and pop material. Moreover, the stereo spread and surround activity takes place around the music. Did I mention it was loud? There is some good, solid bass, though.
Disc one of this two-disc set contains both the theatrical (83 minutes) and unrated (98 minutes) versions of the movie in high-def Blu-ray. Then, we get fifteen deleted or extended scenes, totaling about thirty-four minutes; a music video, “Your Money Is on the Dresser,” by Aladeen, directed by Aladeen, on Aladeen Records; and more of the Larry King interview, almost three minutes.
In addition, the BD contains fourteen scene selections; bookmarks; English, French, Spanish, and Portuguese spoken languages and subtitles; English audio descriptions; and English captions for the hearing impaired.
Disc two, a DVD, contains a standard-definition edition of the movie’s theatrical version. Also, the folks at Paramount provide access to an UltraViolet copy of the movie for TV’s, computers, tablets, and smartphones, the offer expiring August 21, 2013. The two discs come housed in a flimsy Blu-ray Eco-case, further enclosed in an embossed, light-cardboard slipcover.
It’s hard to get too worked up about “The Dictator” one way or another, since Cohen softens the main character so much he’s too sympathetic. But Cohen lite is not a satisfying drink. The fact is, the comic actor may have gone to the well one too many times and now found it empty. His shtick of creating bizarre outsiders commenting on American manners looks to have run dry. “The Dictator” is mostly empty space.