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Family Movie Review: The Dictator (R)

DictatorFamilyMovieReviewKernel Rating (out of 5): whole-popcorn-kernal

MPAA Rating: R     Length: 83 minutes

Appropriate for ages 17+. Graphic. Graphic language, graphic violence, graphic nudity, sexual content and themes (including rape and child abuse) and graphic bodily functioning. Yeah, graphic.

Neither as sharp nor quite as sickening as 2009’s “Brüno”, “The Dictator” nonetheless launches an all-out assault on its viewers’ sensibilities. The result is not for the young, the impressionable or the faint of heart.

By Jared Peterson

Sasha Baron Cohen has made a career of pushing buttons. Until now, those buttons were usually visible onscreen, on the blushing or blood-drained faces of unsuspecting citizens in unplanned encounters. In “The Dictator”, Cohen is still plying the line-crossing, envelope-pushing material. But this time he’s following a traditional movie format—cutting out the middleman-on-the-street and passing the savings (and groaning and wincing) on to you. 

Cohen plays (“perpetrates” might be a better word) the role of Admiral-General Aladeen, the absurdly ruthless leader of a fictional, oil-rich North African nation called Wadiya. Decked in huge sunglasses and unearned military festoonery, Aladeen is everything we’ve come to expect from today’s despots. Vain, cruel, flush with cash and drunk with power, he inflicts his elaborately perverted whims upon the cowering populace of a land of delusions come true.

Aladeen’s comeuppance begins when his trusted advisor Tamir (Sir Ben Kingsley) has him kidnapped and replaced by a moronic body double (also played by Cohen). He escapes with his life but minus his beard; thus, hairless and haremless, is he set adrift amongst the strange and notoriously unconquerable denizens of New York City. He’s taken in by Zoey, a hippie-hipster hybrid played by Anna Faris who won’t stop shooting herself in the foot with weak roles in iffy comedies), who mistakes him for a Wadiyan dissident. Soon, he stumbles upon Nadal (Jason Mantzoukas), a nuclear scientist he was certain he’d had executed, and the two team up to foil Tamir’s coup and restore the old regime. Along the way, the laid-low leader continually proves that dictatorship is a state of mind.

Unlike a lot of Sasha Baron Cohen’s earlier work, “The Dictator” follows a straiightforward scripted format, and sometimes suffers for it. (Some dialogue is clearly improvised, and, in fact, the riffing exchanges between Cohen and Mantzoukas are the best parts of the film.) There are a few decent gags, but the script mines hefty chunks of its humor from ethnic, racial and social stereotypes—a practice that, thanks in part to Cohen himself, has become rather commonplace. Most of the movie’s schtick (if one might apply the Yiddish term) is no more daring than that seen regularly on “The Daily Show” or a particularly acidic episode of “30 Rock”.

Arguably, those shows also serve loftier goals—revealing hypocrisy in public life or lampooning the fumbling white guilt of entertainment types. Director Larry Charles, Cohen and cowriters Alex Berg, David Mandel and Jeff Schafer do throw in some for some social commentary. (The unkindest cuts are achieved with cameos showing American celebrities as the pawns or prostitutes of the world’s crueler regimes.) But once you stage a grotesquely invasive childbirth scene or a running gag involving the repeated defilement of a severed head, you’re tossing away your free pass, along with much of your audience’s good will. A wadded ball of pre-chewed political irony crammed into the final scenes comes too late to redeem or erase those images.

“Brüno”, Cohen’s last starring turn, was transgressive, even traumatizing, from its first frames. But despite its ugliness, it had one or two moments of socio-comic brilliance—moments it would be hard to top and impossible to replicate. “The Dictator” waits a tad longer to victimize the viewer, but when the grotesque turn comes, it’s jarring indeed, but unremarkable. Parents can safely steer their children away from this film, knowing that its best qualities are done better in other venues.

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