[The Social Opportunist] Movie Review – The Dictator (2012)

Written by Phil May 24, 2012

The Dictator (2012)

Well everyone, I’m finally back on The Social Opportunist after a little bit of a mental break! I got caught up in the first few weeks of my new job and each night I found myself wanting to collapse on the couch instead of spending a few more hours in front of the computer. So I apologize for that and I won’t let it happen again! Last night I went to the theatre to watch Sacha Baron Cohen’s newest creation, The Dictator, and I just felt I needed to share some of my thoughts! Without giving anything away, I will say that I probably shouldn’t have been surprised by anything I saw or heard in this movie, given that Cohen’s last two forays into film were Borat and Bruno. However, unlike the cheap, somewhat satisfying humour of those first films, I found myself leaving The Dictator with a slightly sour taste in my mouth. But I’m going to stop there, because I need to save some of this for the review itself! Enjoy!

Check out the trailer below before reading the review, just to give yourself a little context (or if you’ve already seen it, a little reminder).

***WARNING: The following review may contain spoilers.***

Unlike Borat or BrunoThe Dictator was not a mockumentary-style film and was instead a full-length feature comedy that made no use of real-life footage or Punk’d-style tactics on the part of Cohen. The film centres around Cohen’s latest character, Admiral General Hafez Aladeen, and his role as supreme leader of the fictional North African-nation of Wadiya. Aladeen is shown to be a quirky, flamboyant and somewhat idiotic dictator who oppresses his people and executes them for the mildest forms of dissidence. After pressure from the United Nations and the international community, Aladeen and his entourage travel to New York to engage in talks and avoid nuclear war. However, Aladeen’s right-hand man and uncle, Tamir (Ben Kingsley), tries to assassinate the real dictator and replace him with a double, allowing Wadiya to open its oil reserves to the West and embrace capitalism. Aladeen manages to survive (without his beard) and, with the help of a socially conscious young Brooklynite named Zoey (Anna Faris) and a previously exiled Wadiyan named Nadal (Jason Mantzoukas),  tries to regain his power through some ridiculous and over-the-top shenanigans.

Aladeen (Sacha Baron Cohen) "wins" Wadiya's version of the Olympic Games.

While I did find myself laughing a lot during The Dictator, much of this was shocked or nervous laughter, as I really did not know how to react to some of the jokes that were being made (or if I should be reacting at all). There were some moments in the movie that were genuinely funny, and I have to give it credit for that. However, the extremely stereotypical depiction of the Arab culture and the general insensitivity to pretty much every other culture was overbearing. A joke (about midway through the film) about chemotherapy was probably the moment when I realized I just wasn’t enjoying myself anymore. I don’t normally find myself getting offended in movies (or even in real life), but for some reason, I just couldn’t shake an uncomfortable feeling while watching this movie. I don’t even know if offended is the word used to best describe how I felt about this movie.

The Dictator’s tired plot was definitely something I’ve seen before: the powerful yet spoiled character that loses it all and has to live among the lesser people until they learn what’s really important in life. I think a huge reason why I just couldn’t get into this movie was because it was such an overdone storyline. There was something about Borat and Bruno that made them appealing. It was probably the fact that they seemed real (given that many of Cohen’s shenanigans were real in those movies)! You saw Cohen completely immerse himself in a unique character and got to experience how real people reacted to that character in very real situations. It was something that you normally didn’t get to see in movies unless you were watching a documentary that actually allowed you to be shocked and entertained, all at the same time. Given that this appeal wasn’t present in The Dictator, it felt like simply another cheesy comedy movie along the lines of Adam Sandler or Ben Stiller with the added element of overdone shock and awe.

Aladeen (Sacha Baron Cohen) and Megan Fox, one of his many famous concubines.

In terms of the cast, it appears as though Cohen misused some real talent, including himself. While he is able to accurately portray and lampoon what many believe to be the craziest characteristics of a despotic, totalitarian ruler, Cohen (as Aladeen) gets lost in his attempts to be an emotionally deep and somewhat dramatic character. He’s trying to make the character of Aladeen redeemable in some way, which takes away from the ridiculousness of it all. His characters Borat and Bruno were very real, very ridiculous and rarely learned their lesson, making it easier to see the humor in it all. The female lead, Anna Faris, seemed to be holding back throughout the entire movie. This was a huge disappointment, as Faris can usually hold her own in dumb comedies and make even the stupidest film seem watchable. And finally, the film featured a supporting performance by Gandhi himself, Ben Kingsley. The fact that this amazing actor went along with the content in this film was astounding, but at least he was able to bring some semblance of talent to the bunch. Overall, the acting was cheesy and subpar, but regardless, Cohen was smart enough to feature Megan Fox.

In spite of my above comments, I do believe that The Dictator was able to do something right. It shed light on some common stereotypes that many people still hold of Arab nations and successfully criticized the United States for their inappropriate international behavior. Maybe the whole movie was just trying to be ironic and Cohen’s overall goal was to highlight and express some social, cultural and political misgivings. However, I think this might be giving this movie too much credit. The humor in The Dictator doesn’t appear to be smart or clever enough to have the kind of intellectual foundation that I’m suggesting. It appears that the movie’s acknowledgement of these stereotypes and criticisms was a simple by-product (or maybe sheer coincidence) instead of an intended purpose.

I really had high hopes walking into The Dictator based on the scenes shown in the movie’s trailer and my positive reception of Sacha Baron Cohen’s previous two films. However, it just wasn’t what it should or could have been and instead became something that no movie should ever be. It’s understandable that Cohen would try to shock audiences in order to get people talking about his movie and promoting it to their friends and peers, however I think this new film put a few too many toes over the line. When joke after joke is meant to be shockingly offensive, as a viewer you can never seem to get comfortable with the movie and are constantly waiting for it to die down, just a little. Unfortunately, it never does. The Dictator had a few well-placed and intelligent laughs, but overall, it was just too much. And I know that some of you may criticize me for this review given the number of times that I’ve said “well, you’ve just got to watch a movie for what it is,” but even without the offensiveness of it, the jokes (whether stupid or not) just didn’t hold any value. I can’t really explain why I was so turned off by this movie, yet here we are.


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