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.
A big hit at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival Hamlet 2 often careens out of control but when it connects the theatre fills with laughter. This is a story of a very frustrated high school drama teacher Dana Marschz (Steve Coogan) who decides to stage his own play--a musical sequel to Hamlet featuring original songs he has composed (titles like “Rock Me Sexy Jesus” and “Gay As the Day Is Long”). Yes he’s aware everyone died at the end of Shakespeare’s immortal classic but the failed actor-turned-teacher has found a way to bring them back to life by using a time machine(!) In any event he’s desperate to save the Tucson school’s arts program which is being cut and he thinks this is the answer. Certainly it’s better he figures than his usual productions which have the students re-enacting live stage versions of popular movies such as Erin Brockovich that are regularly panned by the ninth-grade drama critic. Of course the non-PC nature of the show causes lots of outrage from school officials and community leaders but with the help of ACLU attorney Cricket Feldstein (Amy Poehler) Dana remains steadfast in his determination to go on with the show. Coogan is brilliantly loony and wildly funny in a hit-for-the-fences interpretation of the character. He’s definitely taking chances turning off the audience with his off-the-wall approach to playing this desperate loser who has to resort to teaching bored kids. It’s Coogan’s energy and fresh approach that make the movie work better than it has any right to. Poehler who also scored recently in Baby Mama is hilarious as the take-no-prisoners lawyer who comes to Dana’s defense. Catherine Keener is droll perfection as his bored wife who is having an affair with their boarder Gary underplayed nicely by David Arquette. In the good sport category Elisabeth Shue turns up as…Elisabeth Shue now a local nurse after her movie career supposedly hit the skids. She’s actually very funny spoofing herself and the whole aura of the successful Hollywood star. The students are all first rate including Dana’s star pupils Rand Posin and Epiphany Sellers played amusingly by Broadway’s Spring Awakening cast members Skylar Astin and Phoebe Strole respectively. And special mention to The Ralph Sall Experience for their hilarious musical parodies. Director Andrew Fleming lets the gags fly with abandon and gets much of the broad bits to actually work. He and screenwriter Pam Brady forge a close collaboration that results in a pretty good hit-to-miss ratio on the laugh meter; anyone expecting subtlety has wandered into the wrong theatre. Working with a wonderful group of actors with plenty of improvisational experience certainly has helped here and Fleming’s film has the look and feel of a by-the-seat-of-your-pants experience. The actual staging of Hamlet 2 is rather inspired with the multitude of wacky musical numbers cleverly presented. The Southwestern high school that Coogan’s character is stuck in is spot-on although Tucson residents probably won’t appreciate the numerous jokes made at the expense of their town.