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.
Paul (Greg Kinnear) and Jessie Duncan (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos) are a sweet couple dedicated to being good parents to their young son Adam (Cameron Bright). But the day after his eighth birthday Adam is killed when a car hits him. At the funeral Paul and Jessie are approached by Dr. Richard Wells (Robert De Niro) an old college professor of Jessie's who claims he may have the solution to their sorrow: He offers them a chance to clone Adam. Whatever they decide Paul and Jessie must decide quickly since Dr. Wells informs them that Adam's cells will only be viable for another 72 hours. Their judgment clouded by grief the couple takes Dr. Wells up on his offer and agrees to break off all ties with friends and family and move to a secluded town in Vermont where the Godsend Institute is located. The procedure works and Paul Jessie and their son are a perfect family again--until Adam passes the age that the original Adam died. The cloned boy becomes plagued with visions of a boy named Zachery committing horrendous crimes and eventually begins to act them out. Paul and Jessie suspect Dr. Wells is keeping something from them about Adam--and what they discover turns their world upside down.
Kinnear (Stuck on You) is well cast as the unassuming dad and husband Paul whose main motivation for going along with the procedure is to see his wife happy again. But although his character has the most substance Kinnear really isn't given much else to do here besides demand answers from everyone. As his wife Jessie Romijn-Stamos (The Punisher) gets to cry a lot and look really distressed throughout most of the film but the scope of her character pretty much stops there. The problem is that while the characters are well defined on paper--Jessie for example is a professional photographer and Paul is a high school teacher--the only side the audience gets to see of them is that of the tormented doting parents. The veteran De Niro (Analyze That) however adds some oomph to a lineup of otherwise unremarkable performances. His portrayal of Dr. Wells is perfectly balanced: A brilliant yet jittery doctor struggling with his own amorality. But Wells takes a turn in the end that is too hard to swallow going from respected researcher to candelabra-toting madman. Young Cameron Bright (The Butterfly Effect) wonderfully portrays the two Adams giving the character(s) just enough continuity without losing their individuality.
Director Nick Hamm's visuals are very overt in Godsend: Scenes before Adam's death are bathed in a soft warm palette while the years afterward in the Vermont countryside are brighter and cooler. Adam's skewed visions meanwhile are infused with contrast and graininess. But it's a pity Hamm couldn't permeate Mark Bomback's script with the same level of intensity. The story touches on the ethical moral and legal issues of cloning and does it in a simple way--through Paul and Jessie's grief--so the audience is able to relate to the subject. But what happens to the cloned boy once he passes the lifespan of the original Adam is the film's most terrifying aspect and rather than deal with it intelligently the filmmaker opted to make Dr. Wells into a genius-gone-mad and the boy a less threatening and unexciting prototype of Damien from the 1976 Omen. It would have been far more interesting to explore the consequences of the cloned Adam finding out about his true identity for example or take it a step further and explore whether the couple would be willing to go through the procedure again if the first one had failed after several years. Now this would have made Godsend more frightening at a Raelian-type level.
February 19, 2004 12:07pm EST
Mooseport is an idyllic little Maine town populated with equally idyllic folk including Handy Harrison (Romano) who owns the local hardware store and his veterinarian girlfriend of six years Sally (Maura Tierney). But Mooseport is also the vacation home of the former president of the United States Monroe "Eagle" Cole (Gene Hackman) who after two successful terms in office decides the sleepy community would be a great place to quietly live out the rest of his days. But the people of Mooseport delay the president's retirement when they convince him to run for Mayor which doesn't sit well with Handy. Unbeknownst to the town council he's also put in a bid for mayoral candidacy. Certain he could never beat the former president in an election Handy nearly backs down--but when the ex-prez makes a move on Sally unaware she is Handy's significant other he decides to stay in the races for both mayor and boyfriend. Regrettably it might be too late for the latter since Sally resents Handy's commitment phobia and has accepted a date with the president in retribution. Oh but who will she choose? The campaign gets thorny when Eagle's ex-wife Charlotte (Christine Baranski) arrives in town to help with Handy's campaign and the president's chief advisor of 15 years Grace (Marcia Gay Harden) discloses she has feelings for him.
All eyes are on Romano known to TV viewers since 1996 for his portrayal of New York City sportswriter and father of three Ray Barone on the CBS sitcom Everybody Loves Raymond. Welcome to Mooseport is Romano's big-screen acting debut and he does a fine job shedding his popular television persona for that of a small-town handyman. But while Romano successfully crafts a character devoid of any Barone family attributes that character Handy is as one-dimensional as a blank script sheet. His love interest in the film played by Tierney (ER's nurse Abby Lockhart) gets fleshed out a little more and--unlike Handy--her character actually shows thoughts and feelings. A dedicated veterinarian Sally is a tough and outspoken woman with a heart of gold and she's impossible to dislike. More engaging is the relationship between Hackman and Harden two veteran actors who make the most of their cookie-cutter roles. As the charismatic onetime leader of the free world Hackman does his best Bill Clinton while Harden seemed more inspired by Condoleezza Rice a consummate professional and the president's indispensable right-hand woman. Welcome to Mooseport doesn't tap into its supporting talents as well: Baranski as the president's ex-wife and Fred Savage as his fresh-faced PR director deliver the film's rare laugh-out-loud moments but they're brought in for a couple of zingers and then left out to dry.
Donald Petrie who made his directorial debut in 1988 with the Julia Roberts starrer Mystic Pizza has a flair for helming fluffy comedies that succeed because of their star power rather than their stories (read: 1993's Grumpy Old Men starring Jack Lemmon Walter Matthau and Ann-Margret; Sandra Bullock's 2000 comedy Miss Congeniality; and last year's How To Lose a Guy in 10 Days with Kate Hudson and Matthew McConaughey). Now Petrie can add Welcome to Mooseport to the list. Although scribe Tom Schulman's (Dead Poets Society) screenplay is pretty imaginative his characters are unexciting and too goody-goody. Unfortunately the clever dialogue has been reserved for the supporting characters rather than its stars Romano and Hackman. Thus there are no bad guys to loathe (Eagle a career politician refuses to fight a dirty campaign) and Handy the underdog is too uninteresting to root for. Then there are all the unanswered questions: Where and how does Handy live? We only see him stacking shelves in the store and driving around in his truck. And why he hasn't made a commitment to Sally after so many years? While we find out somewhat at the end of the film why Handy has never proposed the revelation comes too late for us to care and until then the most personal thing we know about him is that he has a dog named Plunger.