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Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on Movies: The Dictator

THE DICTATOR (Two and a Half Stars)

U.S.: Larry Charles, 2012

Sacha Baron Cohen is no Charlie Chaplin, and he probably never will be. But at least he‘s willing to give his comedy a shot or two of social and political consciousness. The Dictator, a sort of heir to the agility and impudence and political courage of Chaplin’s 1940  The Great Dictator (in which Charlie sent up Hitler as “Adenoid Hynkel”), shows us Baron Cohen in that mood of mildly terrorist hilarity and cheerful bad taste that infused his breakthrough movie comedy Borat — or, to be more complete about it, Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan.

Here, courtesy once again of his fellow writers  and director Larry Charles, Baron Cohen sticks a knife in world amity. Insead of a knuckle-headed, mispronouncing, sexist, racist, boorish reporter from Kazakhstan, we get a knuckle-headed, mispronouncing, sexist, racist, boorish, murderous dictator from Wadiya — the Muammar Qadafi-Sadam Hussein-like dumbbell despot Aladeen, who has ruled the little mythical North African nation with an iron fist and a brain of granite over mush, since the age of seven.

He’s a real full-blooded fascist tyrant, a proud oppressor. Whenever Admiral General Aladeen wants someone executed, he simply turns, catches the attention of a nearby lurking assassin and a makes a little “snuff” gesture with his fingers. On his bedroom wall is a gallery of photos of celebrity sexual conquests (all apparently bought and paid for), including Oprah Winfrey and Arnold Schwarzenegger, with Megan Fox rushing out the door from his latest tryst, refusing his plaintive plea that they cuddle.

Surrounding this horny buffoon are a scurvy band of henchmen and minions and possible traitors, including his right hand killer, relative and the country’s rightful heir to tyranny Tamir (Ben Kingsley). He has a nuclear project going out in the desert, held up by his propensity for executing scientists, especially when they balk at his request that the missiles have a pointed top rather than a rounded one — because he thinks pointed tops look more ferocious.

To put it succinctly. Aladeen is an amoral dunce and a bloody nincompoop, qualities he shares, in part, with many other great and not-so-great dictators, from Adolf Hitler to Adenoid Hynkel to Kim Jong-Il (to whom The Dictator is dedicated in “loving memory”). As such, he’s sometimes funny, sometimes not — which also is the case with this movie, as it was with both Borat and Baron Cohen’s 2009 follow-up, Bruno. The Dictator is a film admirable for its audacity, erratic in its comic attack, defiantly tasteless and, for the first time, somewhat sentimental and upbeat and conventional (which I thought helped rather than hurt the movie). It has one great scene, a number of good ones, and some really lousy ones. Ignore or forgive the bad stuff (which isn’t always that easy) and you might have a fairly good time. Remember: Some comedies — especially the so-called rom-coms — don’t have any good scenes at all.

The plot comes partly out of  Mark Twain’s “The Prince and the Pauper,” with a sideswipe through Eddie Murphy’s Coming to America. Aladeen, who sports a black beard that suggests both Bin-Laden and ZZ Top (and which he had at seven), treats his country like an abusable plaything, and been summoned to the U.N. to expain his atrocities and his nuclear projects. (“Peaceful,” he explains, cracking up.) He’s accompanied by his retinue and his latest double, a lame-brained goatherd who is even stupider than Aladeen. After that all arrive, Tamir sets in motion a plot to kidnap Aladeen, have the double take his place at the U.N., proclaim Wadiya a democracy, call in Chinese businessmen and start divvying up the oil profits.

So, before you can say “waterboarding,” Aladeen is hauled off to be tortured by grinning agent and killer-for-hire John C. Reilly (unnamed and uncredited but not unappreciated). After the two exchange torture tips, Aladeen escapes — and winds up in the hands of a wide-eyed, bouncy. tender-hearted feminist — and head of the local politically correct food store, the Free Earth Collective. Her name: Zoey (played, deblonded, by Anna Faris). He also runs into one of his presumed victims, the nuclear scientist who didn’t want pointed missile tops, Nadal (Jason Mantzoukas), a guy who’s now part of a New York expatriate community called Little Wadiya (their hangout is the Death to Aledeen restaurant) and the two hatch a counterplot to replace the double, give another U. N. speech repudiating democracy, and get back to the dictatorship racket — in a country that Aladeen believes loves to be oppressed.

We don’t have enough political comedy in our films, and maybe that’s why Baron Cohen received such a rapturous reception for Borat. I’m not sure why Sacha, a talented and uninhibited writer-comedian, makes movies that are such a hit or miss proposition, except that maybe sometimes his lack of inhibitions can outstrip his talent. An example of what goes wrong in his movies (for me) comes in a scene that has been praised by some critics: the helicopter sequence where Aladeen and Nadal freak out a nice and square-looking middle-aged American couple, by babbling away to each other, partly in Wadiyan (I guess), and partly in English, a series of remarks that include references to 911 (a Porsche model number), and to the Empire State Building, the Statue of Liberty and other tall landmarks, with Aladeen going “Boom! Boom!” in happy anticipation of fireworks. Naturally the distressed American couple make the wrong assumptions.

Now, we know Aldeen is an idiot or blabbermouth, capable of saying or doing anything. But why is the allegedly intelligent Nadal going along with him, and making the same blunders — instead of, say, desperately trying to steer him off the subject and continually failing (probably the right way to play the scene.) Baron Cohen and his fellow screenwriters (guys from “Seinfeld” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm”), keep setting up scenes meant to be funny and outrageous but that don’t spring enough out of character or the situation — and that occasionally go way, way over the edge — like the shocker where Aladeen‘s double urinates in his water pitcher and then spills it on the Israeli delegation, or Zoey‘s masturbation lesson to Aladeen, or the sudden childbirth scene in the Free Earth Collective.

Of course the Marx Brothers were partial to non sequiturs too, and several critics have compared this film to both Chaplin’s The Great Dictator, and the Marxes’ Duck Soup. But in their greatest films, Groucho, Chico and Harpo made their comedy work through sheer brazenness, through adroit asides and clever playing to the audience. That kind of wacky genius isn’t really a Cohen forte — even in his earlier movies, which are based on improvisation. In The Dicctator, many of the scenes didn‘t work for me consistently, and similar scenes didn’t in Borat or Bruno either. My loss perhaps. But you either laugh or you don’t.

The good scene I mentioned above is more a great comic/political moment, and it succeeds out of sheer brazenenness. At another U. N. meeting, the real Aladeen seizes the mike and goes into a long tirade about the relative merits of dictatorship and democracy. In it, he recounts all the misfortunes democracy is supposed to save or free us from — like having just the top one percent of our country’s citizens control most of the wealth. Or having a government (or a congressional majority) that continually cuts taxes for the rich, and cuts social services for the poor or middle class. Or having elections that are essentially rigged or bought. And on and on.

That scene almost saved the whole movie. Of course, between the urine and masturbation jokes, there was a lot to save. Sometimes it takes schtick as well as politics. Groucho, who liked to improvise too, could have brought down the house with a waggle of his shaggy eyebrows, a baleful stare through his imaginary glasses, a wave of his cigar, and a line like: “Ah, Mrs. Rittenhouse, won’t you lie down?” Ah well, what the hell: Heil Hynkel.

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So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
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