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.
Like the many standard teacher-mentor stories before it Lead follows the same basic principals. It focuses on Pierre Dulaine (Antonio Banderas) a Manhattan dance teacher and competitor who volunteers his time to teach ballroom dancing to New York inner-city high school students serving detention. It’s never really explained why he wants to do this--maybe he’s just crazy that way. But through his determination the reluctant teenagers are soon waltzing and doing the tango all over the room. They even take it one step further and combine Dulaine's classical dance with their unique hip-hop style and music to create a high-energy unique fusion honing their craft for a prestigious city ballroom competition (and some of them win too!) And through it all Dulaine inspires these street kids to learn about pride respect and honor. Pardon me while I gag for a moment. Banderas does what he can with the syrupy role but tends to look uncomfortable with some of the line readings. Thankfully he’s got the moves. One of the better scenes is Dulaine dancing the tango with a hot blonde--to prove to the unbelieving teens how hip classical dancing can be. And after watching them slide all over the floor they get the picture. The urban kids are all pretty standard with Rob Brown (Finding Forrester) leading the pack as a troubled youth trying not to get involved with drug dealing but heading that way anyway. His love interest played by Yaya DaCosta also has her share of family strife. But as far as the best dancing is concerned hats off goes to Jenna Dewan Dante Basco and Marcus T. Paulk who all perform one heck of a steamy tango number. Alfre Woodard even makes an appearance as the school’s hardened principal who’s softened by Dulaine’s earnestness. How typical. Who would have thought ballroom dancing would be so popular these days? For awhile there was just one movie about it: the wonderfully quirky Strictly Ballroom. But then came the Richard Gere/Jennifer Lopez starrer Shall We Dance? (Americanized from a Japanese original) and last year’s stellar documentary Mad Hot Ballroom about street kids learning to dance. Now we’ve got Take the Lead which is also based on a true story about Dulaine and his efforts to introduce culture to inner-city kids. Sure ballroom dancing is fun to watch especially mixed with cool hip-hop moves. And in the hands of veteran music video and commercial director Liz Friedlander those dance scenes clearly stand out. Yet the fact Lead is Friedlanderr feature film debut it’s also clear she doesn’t have the skills to go beyond the cliché. They probably think they can away with a done-to-death story if the dancing pops. They’re mistaken.