The Dictator Review: An Uproariously Funny Mess

The Dictator is certainly one of the most outrageous and distasteful ventures ever put to film. It is also pretty funny, too.

rating: 3

The laughs might not be quite as nuanced this time, but Sacha Baron Cohen still knows how to deliver punchy, extremely offensive, and uproariously funny one-liners with the best of them. The Dictator, his latest film, directed by Borat and Brüno helmer Larry Charles, dispenses with the expected mockumentary format, and while Cohen's transition back to narrative features is far from smooth, the film is at least a frequently hilarious mess. Again, Cohen plays a larger-than-life character, this time the despotic, tyrannical leader of the Republic of Wadiya, Admiral General Aladeen (quite clearly modelled on Saddam Hussein). As he endeavours to create a nuclear weapons programme, the U.N. intervene, causing Aladeen to travel to New York to resolve the matter himself. Soon enough, he winds up kidnapped and stripped of his identity - that is, his beard - before escaping into the city, penniless and unidentifiable. Here he meets a radical political activist, Zoey (Anna Farris), who gets him a job at her health food store, while Aladeen tries to reclaim his life - for he has been replaced with a gormless double - and ensure that his country does not become democratised. It is quite a claim, but Cohen's latest feature is somehow even more crazed and eager to offend than his last two efforts. Abandoning the mockumentary format is no doubt disappointing, but Cohen clearly has other things on his mind this time; decapitations, shocking bodily penetration and scatological gags are all just part of the pro-forma, and as a moc-doc, this simply would not work. The Dictator is a maddeningly outlandish film, and when reaching for emotional resonance, it loses its not-so-firm grip on narrative coherence, but given how invested the film becomes in its own audaciousness - and constantly one-upping its own shock factor - it is likely that Cohen is well-aware this is not his most convincing work of straight storytelling. Beginning with the facetious epitaph, "In memory of Kim Jong-Il", it is a film keen to offend from first frame to last. Moreso than Cohen's previous films, there is a busy, pacy clip to proceedings, chugging frantically from one insane gag to the next, ensuring that those which do not work - and there are plenty - are not lingered on for any time at all. It is the "mud-to-the-wall" approach to filmmaking, scattershot and absolutely hit-and-miss - it just so happens that when it hits, it hits hard. Changing things up this time are the likes of Ben Kingsley, John C. Reilly and Anna Farris in supporting roles, though none - even Farris, again playing the cute, ditzy role she has mastered over the years - really musters much of an impact when wrestling for attention alongside Cohen's understandably scene-stealing caricature. Some surprise cameos best left unspoiled do tickle the ribs, though. Indeed, the visible seams of the narrative are the character interactions and relationships; Aladeen's romantic entanglement with Zoey is written with little fuss, resulting in ridiculous turnabouts and unconvincing emotions and psychology. But just then, Aladeen makes a superbly-timed mark of high impropriety, and it doesn't seem to matter; the film is composed like a crude cartoon, not so much concerned with consistent mindsets and behaviours, but with escalating the art of exaggeration, as Cohen does with an almost embarrassing level of efficiency. Pile onto this some timely political gags - including references to the recent passings of Gaddafi, Jong-Il and Bin Laden (or not, as Aladeen asserts in the latter case) - as well as some intentionally, hilarious ham-fisted political commentary. The result is a narratively, possibly chemically unbalanced film, which if nothing cannot be described as boring. Certainly a come-down from Borat and Brüno in terms of style and coherence, Cohen's brazen comic style - of making you laugh and then feel bad for it - nevertheless remains as biting and ferocious as ever. The Dictator is certainly one of the most outrageous and distasteful ventures ever put to film. It is also pretty funny, too. The Dictator is in UK cinemas now. You can also read our earlier review from Simon Gallagher HERE
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Frequently sleep-deprived film addict and video game obsessive who spends more time than is healthy in darkened London screening rooms. Follow his twitter on @ShaunMunroFilm or e-mail him at shaneo632 [at] gmail.com.