Sacha Baron Cohen, in character as "The Dictator," may be a good-natured despot out for laughs as well as for power, but not all critics left the theater with a satisfied grin.
Cohen's new movie has drawn special attention in Brooklyn, where his character, a dictator from a fictional north African country, seeks refuge and love in an organic grocery store in Park Slope. The early reviews for the "The Dictator" are mixed: Associated Press critic Christy Lemire delivered an emphatic thumbs down (with one-and-a-half stars out of four); the NY Daily News' Elizabeth Weitzman gave it a rave (with four stars out of five).
From Christy Lemire of AP:
In analyzing Sacha Baron Cohen and the array of offbeat characters he's created, it's clear that it's become a matter of diminishing returns. … [Cohen's] "The Dictator" [is] his least-focused film yet, despite the fact that it has an actual script compared to the guerrilla-style mockumentaries that preceded it. …
Baron Cohen is once again working with Larry Charles, who directed "Borat" and "Bruno," but the results are more scattershot than ever. An early bit works in which Aladeen plays a personalized Wii game that allows him to kill Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics (anti-Semitism has long been a main target of Baron Cohen, who's an observant Jew). A helicopter ride over Manhattan that Aladeen takes with his former nuclear weapons expert (Jason Mantzoukas) creates some cultural misunderstandings that freak out the pasty tourists sitting across from them — that's good for some uncomfortable laughs.
But more often, "The Dictator" relies on crass sexual jokes and easy fish-out-of-water hijinks. At times, it even plays like Eddie Murphy's "Coming to America," which was amiable enough but didn't exactly represent cutting-edge comedy. About two-thirds of the way in, Kathryn Hahn shows up out of nowhere, with no introduction, for the film's most graphic sight gag. Surely, there must have been more from this reliable comic actress, and her brief inclusion feels like the product of an awkward edit.
As always, Baron Cohen fully commits to this character and even manages to find some glimmers of tenderness beneath the cold exterior. Like Kim Jong Il (to whom "The Dictator" is dedicated), who was at the center of the brilliant puppet musical "Team America: World Police," Aladeen is just plain lonely. But playing this type of out-there satirical figure has really run its course.
From Elizabeth Weitzman of NY Daily News:
… The easily offended will be appalled. The rarely offended may be appalled. But they’ll have to stop laughing long enough to realize it. …
The filmmakers push as many buttons as possible: No subject is off-limits, and there will be times when you won’t believe what you’re watching. Surely, this is the first movie in which the central couple flirt while holding hands inside another woman’s body.
Baron Cohen goes for, and gets, big laughs over silly asides. … But his best jokes are the edgiest: the ones that acknowledge unpleasant realities with both wit and daringly blunt force (as in his comparison between dictatorships and contemporary America). He’s a political satirist with a peerless sense of the preposterous.
For all its absurdities, “The Dictator” is both more structured and more polished than his earlier works. It also shows enough unexpected heart that one could almost call it a traditional romantic comedy. Of course, few contemporary rom-coms involve a murderous despot who falls in love with a razor-averse feminist co-op owner. Baron Cohen makes a pretty good case that there should be more.