The last thing you want to do in a critical review is to bury the lead, so I’ll put my thoughts on Sacha Baron Cohen’s latest film, The Dictator, on Front Street: It isn’t funny, it isn’t clever, and it isn’t original.
There’s the nuts and bolts that will put the building together, but humor me for a paragraph or two as I delve into the nuances of the architecture.
Nicholas Meyer, the writer of three Star Trek films and director of two who also happens to be the man who put Sherlock Holmes back on the best-seller list back in the 70s – to say nothing of being an artist for whom I have limitless respect – once said this:
“My father once said, ‘Never start a joke with, “Oh, this is a funny story.”‘ I would never tell you a joke that I didn’t think was funny on the off-chance that you might laugh – I have to think it’s funny.”
It seems as though Cohen wrote about 100 pages’ worth of jokes that wouldn’t have worked in other movies, threw them together and said, “Eh. This’ll work.”
In the film, he plays Admiral-General Aladeen, supreme leader of the fictional nation of Widaya. After he’s been deposed from power on the eve of an inflammatory speech to the United Nations, he’s forced to live as a common man in New York. He quickly earns the sympathy of Zoey (Anna Ferris), a liberal woman who runs an organic food store.
So it’s a fish-out-of-water story with a twist. How utterly groundbreaking.
Cohen gives it his all, as he does in all of his headlining performances, but there’s something about this one that lacks earnestness. He pulls off a natural performance and somehow manages to chew all the scenery around him, and yet it comes across as going through the motions.
It may very well be that Cohen has run out of ways to shock an audience. When you go to see a Sacha Baron Cohen film, you expect wall-to-wall political incorrectness, and he delivers every single time. There’s nothing new to be discovered here, which is a shame, because it’s a potential gold mine of comedy.
Harkening back to my quoting of Nicholas Meyer, I get the feeling that Cohen himself didn’t find this script particularly funny. He sold it on camera and off, and yet he never seemed willing to buy it himself.
As for Ferris, her perfect streak of being painfully unfunny and trying entirely too hard remains unbroken. But at least some of her other roles (the Ryan Reynolds disaster that was Just Friends springs to mind) gave her things to do and scenes to play. Here she’s the plucky girlfriend who makes the hero see the error of his ways.
Again. How utterly groundbreaking.
See, here’s the thing about comedy: It needs to be funny. Of all the genres exploited by the medium of film, comedy is the one that must, must, MUST change and evolve, and Cohen’s comedy is stuck in neutral.
There are a handful of things that did make me chuckle. A scene in which Aladeen discovers masturbation (with an oddly juxtaposed shot from last year’s NBA slam dunk contest inserted at the climax) and a running gag involving a severed head provided some laughs.
But it’s a drop in the bucket.
The film tries to make itself relevant in Aladeen’s eventual address to the UN, but by that point it’s too little too late, and it’s ham-handed and obvious to boot.
It’s taken me a good four hours to write this review because every previous draft was just all over the place (like the movie, it wound up being all over the place anyway, but the train’s sailed on that one). I couldn’t zero in on a single thing that’s wrong with this movie – no bad movie has a single problem, but more often than not there is a root problem from which the others stem.
And the root (as it often is) is rather simple: This is a movie that looks on the surface like it’s trying too hard when in reality it isn’t trying at all.
I could have written the whole thing off as an exercise in irony if only the opening shot had been Cohen saying simply, “So this is a funny story…”
Paramount’s 1080p MPEG-4 AVC-encoded transfer is decent but in no way eye-popping. The color palate in scenes set in Aladeen’s palace in Wadiya is rich with golds and greens and yet they never seem as striking as they should. This section of the film is arguably its most over-the-top, and the color treatment should reflect that. Aside from that, there aren’t any signs of artifacting or any other major distractions. The transfer is clean and well-defined but doesn’t take full advantage of the format.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track is a bit more pristine than its video counterpart. The ambiance of New York comes to life, the audio is crisp and clear, and the soundtrack remains balanced throughout. Music is blended seamlessly and while this movie doesn’t call for anything other than an average sound treatment, Paramount’s given it a slightly-above-average one.
Beyond the Feature
The Dictator doesn’t exactly feature a king’s ransom when it comes to bonus materials. The Banned & Unrated cut features an extended version of the film, but – like most extended cuts – it’s pretty much the same as the theatrical version.
- Deleted and Extended Scenes – Fifteen scenes, totaling a little over 33 minutes.
- Music Video – Best Love Song, ‘Your Money is on the Dresser’
- Larry King Interview – A slightly-longer version of a scene in the movie. The main difference is that this version features an anti-Semitic joke. Wow. Anti-Semitism from a Sacha Baron Cohen movie. How utterly – you get the point.
The set also features a DVD copy of the film as well as an UltraViolet digital download. All bonus features are presented in high-definition.
For a guy who’s earned a lot of praise for originality and breaking the mold, Cohen has made a comedy that is at best derivative and at worst boring. The Dictator provides a subject that had a lot of potential, and to say that it’s missed the target but hit the tree is to give it far too much credit.
Shop for The Dictator on Blu-ray for a discounted price at Amazon.com (August 21, 2012 release date)