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'The Dictator' offers iron-fisted, ham-handed laughs, critics say

May 16, 2012 |  3:21 pm

"The Dictator"

In "The Dictator," Sacha Baron Cohen combines his knack for absurd characters with the long-standing comedic tradition of skewering despotism on the big screen (see also: Charlie Chaplin's "The Great Dictator," the Marx Brothers' "Duck Soup," Woody Allen's "Bananas"). Critics mostly agree that "The Dictator," which stars Baron Cohen as the iron-fisted ruler of a fictional North African country, is funny and vulgar, but whether the combination truly works depends on whom you ask.

The Times' Betsy Sharkey says "The Dictator" is "by turns hysterical, heretical, guilty, innocent, silly, sophisticated, teasing and tedious." She adds that in the wake of the Arab Spring, "the satire should feel especially relevant, but there is so much silliness it's hard to take anything here that seriously." Baron Cohen's physical comedy creates some laughs, as does his chemistry with co-star Ben Kingsley, but Anna Faris, playing against type as a crunchy New York hippie, "is the film's standout." In the end, however, Sharkey says it may be time for Baron Cohen to try something new, as "it's hard not to think that this particular joke has gone on too long."

The New York Times' A.O. Scott writes that Baron Cohen's comedic potential "is mostly squandered in 'The Dictator,' which gestures half-heartedly toward topicality and, with equal lack of conviction, toward pure, anarchic silliness." In other words, the stakes aren't high enough ("There is nothing especially outrageous here," Scott writes), and the jokes aren't funny enough ("There are a few good ones, but many more that feel half-baked and rehashed").\

GRAPHIC: 'The Dictator' vs. real dictators

Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times, however, argues that with "The Dictator" Baron Cohen "establishes a claim to be the best comic filmmaker now working." Ebert compares Baron Cohen and director Larry Charles to the Marx Brothers for their emphasis on practical jokes over plot, and he also identifies "a taste of Buster Keaton's physical humor" in their antics. Ebert adds, "Baron Cohen's attack on the material is free-wheeling, his attitude is anarchist, and he's more good-humored than in 'Borat' and 'Bruno.'"

Hearst movie critic Amy Biancolli deems "The Dictator" a "mix of comic bombshells and conventional plot devices that add up to an entertaining goof."  She agrees with Sharkey that "as satire goes, most of this is too broad to cut deeply, but it is undeniably propulsive and funny."

Todd McCarthy of the Hollywood Reporter finds that "Baron Cohen's shotgun blasts of scabrous humor hit more than they miss," with the results "often funny and occasionally hilarious." McCarthy says some of the film's best cultural gags stem from Cohen and Faris' dynamic, and some of its best political humor comes courtesy of "a diabolically clever scene in a tourist helicopter over Manhattan." Charles and Baron Cohen are also wise "to acknowledge when enough is enough," as the film clocks in at 84 minutes.

The Boston Globe's Wesley Morris writes that while the "early scenes have an easy whimsy," they never build to anything greater, and the result is "an inert, politically neutral movie, a satire that can’t bring itself to properly satirize anything." Morris adds that the movie's more conventional scripted approach lacks "the sustained abandon and mischief that made for ecstatic moviegoing with 'Borat' and bits of ''Bruno.'"

According to critics, audiences in search of sharp satire may want to look elsewhere, but those who are fans of Baron Cohen's anarchic brand of humor might just find themselves loyal subjects of "The Dictator."


Q&A: 'The Dictator'

Sacha Baron Cohen's 'Dictator' targets Ryan Seacrest

Anna Faris knows 'Dictator' star only as 'Supreme Leader'

—Oliver Gettell

Photo: Sacha Baron Cohen and Ben Kingsley in "The Dictator." Credit: Melinda Sue Gordon / Paramount Pictures

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