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‘Dictator’ gives us nothing to laugh about

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Jason Wallis

Posted: Friday, May 25, 2012 7:50 am

We’re still stuck in a bit of a rut, it seems, with the local multiplexes offering very few reasonable choices for discriminating moviegoers — unless, of course, your plan is to see “The Avengers” for the fifth or sixth time, which seems perfectly sensible given the options. “Men in Black 3,” opening this weekend and set for review next, may break the monotony, but I’m trying to further temper my already modest expectations.

On deck this week is “The Dictator,” which won out over the much more lengthy and critically reviled “Battleship” (which I wasn’t too keen on watching anyway, especially after seeing the recent interview with director Peter Berg in which he verbally abuses and attempts to troll and intimidate an Israeli reporter, all while evidently coked out of his mind — classy). My lady friend took the plunge on that one and reports that it’s somewhat admirable insofar as it at least attempts to do something “different” with the whole alien invasion subgenre, but in the end emerges as little more than just another dumb alien action flick. Bless her heart.

It doesn’t take a lot to make me laugh, and my sensibilities are so incredibly jaded at this point that it’s virtually impossible for a movie to offend me. Put in a little effort, make sure your jokes don’t fall completely flat and demonstrate to me that you’re willing to work for your laughs, and I’m fully prepared to be doubled over in stitches in response to whatever you can throw at me, however heinous and craven it may be. Nothing — and I mean absolutely nothing — is sacred when it comes to comedy, and that’s the way it should be.

That said, if you’re choosing to “go there” and rely on shock value to get laughs, then you’d better make sure that your “edgy” humor is actually, you know, funny. There’s nothing more delightful than that guy who can get away with telling a good inappropriate/racist/sexist joke in a room full of mixed company, but by the same token, there are few things more cringe-inducing than the deafening silence that follows a sick joke that just doesn’t work. When that happens, the joke-teller has ceased being a comedian and instead becomes a common ass worthy of contempt. It can be a thin line, and if you’re going to skirt it, I would advise you to know exactly what you’re doing.

I would have guessed that, at this point in their careers, Sacha Baron Cohen and Larry Charles would have the game down pat. After all, they’re the dynamic duo that gave us the cultural touchstone of “Borat!” (which remains the single funniest movie I’ve seen in about a decade) and the grievously under-rated follow-up “Bruno,” both of which included choice gags involving everything from anti-Semitism and homophobia to poop and gay fetish sex. And Charles has a strong background in cutting-edge television shows like “Seinfeld” and, more to the point, “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” which has never shied away from offending delicate sensibilities. (I will not defend his documentary “Religulous” on the grounds that it is stupid and Bill Maher sucks, but I’ll let that one slide for now.)  In short, these guys are the kings of the castle when it comes to morally reprehensible humor.

So what happened with “The Dictator”? Did Cohen and Charles find it difficult to transition from the documentary style of “Borat!” and “Bruno” to a more traditional narrative structure, as some have theorized? Perhaps, but in all fairness they’ve still managed to maintain a consistent comic rhythm throughout the film, suggesting that the problems lie deeper. Were they thrown off by the heavily racist nature of their film, which follows a dictator from northern Africa on his quest to reclaim the throne after being replaced by an imposter? Again unlikely, as Cohen and company seem to be truly enjoying themselves as they bask in the afterglow of each new outrageously racist gag.

The cold, hard fact is that the material is stale. Three or laughs hearty guffaws aside, there is simply nothing in “The Dictator” worth laughing at — unless, of course, you can’t help but giggle like a manic whenever you hear a lengthy made-up “Arabic” word pronounced with exaggerated guttural effort. (If that’s the case then you’re in luck, because that joke is repeated about 50 times over the course of the film’s 80 minutes.) The movie tries every trick in the book, and attempts to shred the envelope by piling on an inordinate number of jokes involving male rape, torture, political killings and even childbirth. But very little of it works, leaving “The Dictator” standing there holding the bag, looking like an ass.

Jason Wallis is a News-Sentinel copy editor. He can be reached at jasonwallis@comcast.net.

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