There's probably still someone somewhere that would fall for one of Sacha Baron Cohen's weird and wooly scenarios but let's face the facts: the days when Ali G. could snag an interview with Pat Buchanan or Gore Vidal are long gone. 2009's Bruno definitely let some steam out of Borat's tires not to mention the ensuing lawsuits. But it's refreshing to see Cohen and his Borat/Bruno cohort director Larry Charles flex their muscles in the fictional universe of The Dictator a vehicle that doesn't skimp on their signature cringe-worthy humor.
The world of The Dictator gives them the leeway to create crazy spectacles — at one point Cohen's General Aladeen rides down Fifth Avenue on a camel surrounded by a giant motorcade. Having a plot helps too; although part of the genius of Sacha Baron Cohen's schtick is how the viewer is made culpable by proxy by our amusement and horror at how he tricks and torments people who aren't in on the joke The Dictator continues the self-reflexive satirical bite. We're certainly not off the hook. Aladeen says and does truly outrageous things but they're also exaggerations of the world we live in. It might be a stretch to call Sacha Baron Cohen the British Lenny Bruce or George Carlin in a face merkin but rest assured that no topic is off limits. If you are offended by jokes about abortion rape feminists body hair race religion politics STDs war crimes ethnic cleansing necrophilia and/or bestiality don't even bother. However if you like the kind of comedy that makes you hide your face in your hands feeling like each laugh is being pried from you against your will you're in business.
Cohen eats up the screen as both General Aladeen and his incredibly dumb body double; the latter prefers the intimate company of one of his goats to a human while the former is a fairly stupid ruthless dictator whose own people are so disloyal to him that they actually ignore his commands to execute people. (He really likes to execute people.) When he arrives in New York City to attend a summit at the UN his uncle Tamir (Ben Kingsley) has the two switched so he can easily manipulate the "General" into signing a treaty to make Wadiya a democracy and reap the financial benefits. Aladeen finds refuge with Zoe a hairy-pitted activist who thinks he's a political dissident and is excited to be able to give him a safe haven in her touchy-feely Brooklyn grocery co-op. Instead of being typecast as another blonde dummy Anna Faris is finally given room to play as the wide-eyed naïf who takes Aladeen's very serious statements as jokes or simple miscommunications. She's a great foil to Baron Cohen who is easily half a foot taller than she is and has a wolfish grin. Their banter is often the most politically incorrect of the bunch but also the funniest.
Alas the plot. It's a bare bones situation to get a very broad character from A to B. Aladeen is obviously an outlandish mishmash of modern dictators; he spouts racist misogynist rhetoric endlessly and after a while...yeah we get it. However like all of Sacha Baron Cohen's humor The Dictator also takes a direct shot at Western countries (specifically the United States) which would be all fine and dandy if he didn't wedge an expository speech in about it as well. The problem with making a traditional narrative movie is that with some exceptions you've got to play within the guidelines. The Dictator isn't trying to do anything fancy; all it needs a few big beats and a neat ending to wrap it all up. It doesn't quite manage to tie it all together in a way that makes The Dictator more than an hour and a half or so of laughing and cringing.
Besides Faris and Kingsley there are a number of cameos by a very wide variety of comics and actors. Megan Fox plays herself Kevin Corrigan appears as a creepy dude who works at the co-op John C. Reilly is a racist security guard and Fred Armisen runs an anti-Aladeen café in New York's Little Wadiya district. The very funny Jason Mantzoukas has a large role as Nadal the former head of rocket science who was supposedly executed for not making Aladeen's nuclear warhead pointy. It's a good ensemble and hopefully Sacha Baron Cohen's next feature-length film will build on The Dictator's weaknesses.
WHAT IT’S ABOUT?
After Robert Langdon cracked the Church’s most controversial code in the last film what could possibly make the Vatican come begging for his services again? Using Dan Brown’s lesser-known bestseller Angels & Demons as the basis director Ron Howard and star Tom Hanks return with this crackerjack story revolving around the reemergence of the Illuminati an ancient secret and wickedly powerful brotherhood. Determined to make the Church pay for its sins against science they’ve planted a deadly ticking time bomb somewhere in the heart of the Vatican – just as a new Pope is set to be elected. Langdon joins up with beautiful Italian scientist Vittoria Vetra in a race against time through crypts catacombs cathedrals and hidden vaults as they follow the “Path of Illumination” to save Catholicism’s venerable headquarters from certain destruction.
WHO’S IN IT?
With a thankfully restrained hairstyle Hanks returns as celebrated Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon. He might as well have worn running shoes because the action is ramped up to the max in Angels & Demons turning this colorful drama into something that could have been called The Pope Ultimatum. It’s THAT intense. This is Hanks’ most vivid turn as an action star and he delivers proving movies don’t get much more exciting than this. As his pretty cohort Vetra Ayelet Zurer is every bit his equal a much more effective female lead than the miscast Audrey Tautou was in the critically reviled 2006 blockbuster Da Vinci Code. Ewan McGregor offers a complex turn as the Camerlengo the Pope’s number two and acting head of the Vatican during this period while Stellan Skarsgard brings authority to his role as head of the Swiss Guard. And veteran Armin Mueller-Stahl is simply terrific as a wise and dignified Cardinal at the center of the papal conflict.
If the slow-moving and overlong Da Vinci Code was more cerebral and Hitchcockian in tone Angels & Demons is just the opposite: an exhilarating heart-stopping thriller that doesn’t let up for a minute. Howard’s entire production is a first-rate example of Hollywood craftsmanship delivering a summertime diversion that cooks on all burners. The backdrop of the mysteries and machinations behind the fiercely-guarded veil of the Catholic Church adds a layer of intrigue to the proceedings keeping us hooked throughout with cool twists and turns.
Brown’s novel is basically pulp fiction filled with expository dialogue which has been transferred in a clunky fashion to David Koepp and Akiva Goldsman’s otherwise tight screenplay. Hanks and Zurer come close to Hardy Boys-style delivery as they attempt to awkwardly lay out “clues” and mounds of technical mumbo-jumbo in a believable fashion – not an easy task for the best of actors. You’ll also have to suspend belief as the story is largely implausible. But hey this is a summer movie – the cinematic equivalent of a good beach read – and the filmmakers know exactly how to play it.
A sequence where one of the hostages is being burned at the stake in a cathedral will keep you on edge as director Howard’s experience with setting movie fires (Backdraft anyone?) really comes in handy. The big denouement is one for the ages as well but we won’t reveal anything more about it except to say that a helicopter is involved.
NETFLIX OR MULTIPLEX?
The “cardinal” rule with blockbuster mysteries like this is to see it in a theater before someone tells you how it ends.