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.
This stunning looking Merchant Ivory production is set in remote southern India in 1937 when Englishmen ruled the colony and had a life-changing impact on the local people both personally and professionally. Henry Moores (Linus Roache) is one such man with plans to create a spice plantation in Kerala which requires the erection of a new road through the mountainous region. He enlists the help of a crafty villager T.K. (Rahul Bose) who works hard for his new boss by convincing his people this is a good thing. Henry’s involvement with the locals doesn’t stop there as he carries on a clandestine--and forbidden--affair with his married house servant Sarjani (Nandita Das). When Henry’s own wife (Jennifer Ehle) and son arrive from England the plot thickens. Sarjani can’t let go emotionally and is threatened with death for her betrayal; she wants Henry’s protection from her husband. She also pleads for help from T.K. now caught in the middle between the traditions and morals of his country and his own career ambitions. The ultimate decisions Henry and T.K. are forced to make could have great human and political consequences. Law and Order star Linus Roache returns to his comfort zone in English art-house cinema in past movies like Priest capturing just the right balance between an ambitious man looking for upward mobility professionally and satisfaction personally against a turbulent backdrop of emerging nationalism in India. Love scenes with the gorgeous Nandita Das are sensual and believable--the stuff of classically tragic movie romance. Das is a real find. Not only does the camera love her she acts with great poignancy as a woman trapped in traditions her heart will not let her follow. The other big female role goes to Jennifer Ehle a fine actress stuck with a rather thankless role as “the wife.” Along with Das the other standout in the cast is Indian superstar Rahul Bose who makes his “right hand man” conflicted and convincing as a man smack in the middle of two worlds with only one way out caught up in events drifting out of his control. Often foreign directors taking on their first English language projects flounder as something gets lost in the translation and they stray too far from roots they are comfortable with. For Indian director Santosh Sivan the choice of this fascinating if somewhat soapy story is perfect. Based on an Israeli short film Red Roofs the setting characters and time period have been changed but its universal truths remain with Sivan working in a new language while shooting in his native land. He successfully walks the fine line between a starkly realistic approach and melodrama landing somewhere in the middle. Perhaps key to his triumph over the language barriers is the international feel of the whole enterprise and the choice of Indian actors who are able to make the leap themselves. But without question the key ingredient to Sivan’s vision is his own stunning jaw-droppingly gorgeous cinematography. When director and cameraman are the same the results at least in this case are really something to watch.