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.
In Larry Crowne Tom Hanks plays the title character an affable middle-aged floor manager at a big box department store who loses his job because he never went to college. Lacking a secondary income source (his wife divorced him a few years prior) and underwater on his mortgage he sets out to find new employment but is met with universal rejection. If any of these developments affect him in any significant way you can scarcely tell from his countenance: A plaintive drive home and the occasional watering of the eyes are the only indications of any kind of turmoil within.
All of which hints that Larry Crowne which Hanks also directed and co-wrote (with Nia Vardalos) might be one of those films in which a repressed and emotionally stunted individual gradually comes to face the pain he’s buried enjoys an epiphany or two and lets go of it all in a grand (and presumably Oscar-worthy) catharsis. (That or he shoots up a Dairy Queen.) Only it isn’t. It’s a breezy genial comedy about a guy who enrolls in a community college joins a crew of scooter-riders and hits it off with his speech teacher.
The teacher Mercedes (Julia Roberts) is everything Larry isn’t: dry cynical tired. She’s lost her passion for education and is mired in a toxic marriage with a noxious layabout (Bryan Cranston) whose novel-writing efforts are really just a cover for an internet porn obsession. There’s no reason the two should connect romantically other than the fact that he’s Tom Hanks and she’s Julia Roberts. This appraisal might as well extend to the film as a whole which skates by lazily on the charm and charisma of its two stars never deigning to proffer anything more substantial than their adorable mugs.
Among a rote and forgettable assemblage of supporting characters the only one who manages to register at all is Talia (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) a coquettish free-spirited fellow-student who makes Larry her personal project re-arranging his living room upgrading his wardrobe and coaxing him to be more adventurous. Why she bothers to do any of this is never explained. Is she luring him into a shady business scheme? Is she the recruiter for an apocalyptic cult? An insatiable schlub fetish perhaps? Without any discernible motive we’re left to assume that she takes to him simply because he’s Tom Hanks. I mean who wouldn’t want to ride scooters with Tom Hanks? (I’ll tell you who: Al Qaida.)
Larry Crowne is a film I desperately wanted to like. Certainly its central message of perseverance and optimism in the face of hardship is a noble one. But aside from its two stars a few laughs and a handful of endearing moments there’s precious little to it. By the end of the film I felt like I barely knew any of these people despite having spent the last 90 minutes with them. Nor did I particularly want to know them. Except for Tom and Julia of course. Aren’t they just wonderful?
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Although the title has “war” in it Sorkin thankfully steers clear of those woes. Set in the ‘80s the screenwriter instead focuses on the real-life story of one Charlie Wilson (Tom Hanks) a Texan congressman who likes women and booze--and helping the underdog. In this case it’s Afghanistan which has been brutally invaded by the Soviet Union. In order to help the mujahideen (Afghanistan's rebel fighters) repel the Russians from their occupied land Wilson aligns himself with two key people: blue-blood conservative and fervent anti-communist Joanne Herring (Julia Roberts) and temperamental CIA Agent Gust Avrakotos (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Together these three raise the covert budget from $5 million to $1 billion and get the weapons in the mujahideens’ hands. Needless to say the Soviet Union hightails it out of Afghanistan and falls apart while Wilson comes out smelling the sweetest. But in reality empowering the Afghan people only created a new monster. As Wilson aptly says at the end “…we f**ked up the endgame.” Hanks and Roberts haven’t been this cool in a movie since their heydays in the ‘90s. Hanks has particular fun as the jocular Wilson whose exterior would indicate a guy who only wants to have a good time but whose sharp mind deeply felt patriotism and sense of fair play make him the most unlikely hero. As his lovely costar Roberts seems to be aging like a fine wine turning in a very elegant performance as the Southern rich socialite who clearly has her own opinions and can play any game thrown at her. But the real humor comes from Hoffman as the sardonic Avrakotos a career CIA man who has seen and done it all with little to no recognition for his work. The actor is just having a hell of a year with great performances in both Before the Devil Knows You're Dead and The Savages. But if we could pinpoint one Hoffman performance the Academy might recognize this one would be it. Also good (and having a great year) is Amy Adams as Wilson’s loyal administrative assistant. The best part is that all of them work Sorkin’s dialogue like pros delivering the lines in that rapid style the West Wing creator loves best. Of course Charlie Wilson's War’s director is no slouch either. Mike Nichols is very familiar with this kind of talky dramedy. Perhaps broader in scope than his usual more intimate fare Nichols is still able to steer his cast to near perfection as a genuine actor’s director. He obviously has a nice rapport with Julia Roberts having already guided her to one of her better performances in Closer but seems to frame Tom Hanks and the rest with all the professionalism he has at his fingertips. No the only real problem with Charlie Wilson's War is that it is coming on the tail end of a slew of movies about troubles in the Middle East. Even though Hollywood thinks it’s a hot-button topic the audiences don’t necessarily agree. From The Kingdom to Rendition to Lions for Lambs and others moviegoers are just not responding despite the star power of a Jamie Foxx Reese Witherspoon or Tom Cruise. But out of all these movies Charlie Wilson's War has the best shot to rise above--not only because it has box office draws Hanks and Roberts attached but because it’s the most well-rounded and engaging of the bunch. Good luck Charlie!
For the past 11 years--his whole life--Evan (Freddie Highmore) has been an orphan but that’s about to change along with his name. Evan has "always heard the music " even when it’s not playing and one day he decides to follow it in hopes of finding the parents he’s never met and whose musical genes he has inherited. It takes him out of the orphanage he has always despised and into Manhattan where 11 years prior he was conceived. As we learn via flashback his parents both young musicians at the time were an unlikely match: Lyla (Keri Russell) was a shy dainty cellist while Louis (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) was a brash Irish rocker. Their mutual love for music ultimately brought them together on a rooftop for just one night of which Evan turned out to be the product. But when Evan is born prematurely Lyla’s father (William Sadler) does what he thinks is right for her career and gives the newborn up for adoption without her knowledge. Lyla and Louis have since reluctantly given up music but Evan is about to pick up where they left off in New York City. While there he is discovered by a seemingly well-intentioned "manager" named Wizard (Robin Williams) who renames the prodigy August Rush. Before long Wizard is booking gigs in hopes of capitalizing financially while August hopes to use his music for a slightly nobler purpose: tracking down and reuniting his parents. Highmore (Charlie and the Chocolate) is as much a child-actor prodigy as August Rush is a musician; he’s truly in a class of his own. It’s not just that the British youngster seamlessly ditches his accent to play an American—better and more undetectably than many of his elders are able to do might I add—or that he’s able to pull off the musical aspect (he reportedly mastered the guitar and conducting for further authenticity) but rather that he advances the never-dormant story every step of the way. And it’s not every day that a teenager can handle being the centerpiece of a big Hollywood movie (see The Seeker et al.) but Highmore makes it a non-issue. Russell and Rhys Meyers meanwhile add a classy touch of adult to the story with their opposites-attract arc. Russell borders on too pristine and precious at times and Rhys Meyers is written as the stereotype of Irishmen but they make you believe in the commonality of music as a matchmaker. Williams however misfires with his portrayal of the somewhat ambiguous Wizard. It is unclear whether he is a reincarnated pirate or just a well-traveled New Yorker and Williams plays him with that lack of clarity but kids will laugh nonetheless when the actor gets loud and hyper. Terrence Howard as a concerned social worker and Mykelti Williamson as a pastor turn in solid supporting performances while young Jamia Simone Nash may incite standing ovations with her singing. The concept of August Rush is most certainly aimed towards those too young to discern between realism and fantasy but at least director Kirsten Sheridan (Jim’s daughter) doesn’t patronize kid viewers the way most preteen movies do. While the young director doesn’t exactly steer clear of clichés and sap she makes a concerted effort to place the film’s music and sheer energy at the forefront. Sheridan also does the best with what she’s given which is a highly predictable occasionally preachy script—with a tendency to give Highmore cringe-worthy voiceovers (i.e. “Open yourself up to the music around you”)—written by Nick Castle (Hook which August Rush often resembles) James V. Hart (The Last Mimzy) and Paul Castro. Just as impressive as the film’s omnipresent music—both “found” (basketball dribbles etc.) and orchestrated—is the look of a somewhat magical Manhattan that is as fun for kids as it is mildly scary. All in all Sheridan’s first big movie is a different if slightly uneven kind of kids flick but not so different that the target audience won’t dance along.