THE DICTATOR (2012, directed by Larry Charles, 83 minutes, U.S.)
GOD BLESS AMERICA (2011. directed by Bobcat Goldthwait, 100 minutes, U.S.)
BY DAN BUSKIRK FILM CRITIC In Hollywood, no talent is too immense to be dragged to its knees for some mundane, sure-fire junk. After watching Ricky Gervais follow-up his classic TV work to labor in some distressingly formulaic comedies, we now have the immensely-gifted Sasha Baron Cohen starring in…a rom-com? After the genre-expanding fictional docu-comedies Borat and Bruno, Cohen’s fully-scripted new feature The Dictator finds the comic slipping from culture-jamming satirist to mere goofball comedian. The distance from The Dictator to Adam Sandler’s You Don’t Mess With The Zohan is closer than any of his fans would have hoped.
Before being brought to the big screen, the characters of Ali G., Borat, and Bruno, all had time to be introduced in Cohen’s TV shows. With this feature Cohen debuts his creation Haffaz Alladeen, the ruthless, clueless ruler of the imaginary oil-rich country of Waadeya. Alladeen is unrepentant in his desire to build nuclear weapons and finds himself kidnapped while en route to address the world council of the U.N. Shaved of his trademark Castro-esque beard, Alladeen is unrecognizable as he escapes his captors and stumbles around modern day Brooklyn. He is adopted by the kind-hearted proprietor of a food co-op (Anna Faris), who teaches him love and masturbation while he conspires to avenge his kidnapping and take back Waadeya from his evil brother (Ben Kingsley) who is ruling with the help Alladeen’s idiot body double.
Not that there aren’t laughs to be had, Cohen is much too skilled to not find some laughs here and there. His Alladeen is clueless about the world because whenever someone contradicts him he listens politely and then draws his index finger across his throat, signaling the fate of his subject. But for every joke that works there are obvious, stretched out gags that fall terribly flat, including the long piece in a restaurant where Alladeen disguises himself by adapting pseudonyms based on the signs around his table. It’s a gag Sid Caesar would have tossed from Your Show of Shows for being too corny.
There is something messier than just bad comedy at work in The Dictator, in both form and content. In past films, one could excuse Cohen for his ethnic and homophobic caricatures because the joke seemed to be on his unsuspecting subjects, whose assumed prejudices would lead to accept such ludicrous caricatures as real people. That extra dimension is missing here, as Cohen drags out every ancient stereotype about Middle Easterners being blood-thirsty killers and rapists, who hate woman and make love to goats. As our wars in the Middle East stretch out for over a decade now, his Alladeeen character draws uncomfortable parallels to the mean-spirited Japanese caricatures Hollywood specialized in during World War II.
Not that the film itself has much love for women; overlooking the rape gags and a particularly demeaning joke at Megan Fox’s expense, the film saves some of its cruelest pot shots for Anna Faris’ character. The film pokes fun at her for not being “feminine” enough and for her Leftist political ideals, and then shows a character so simple-minded that she quickly dumps her moral stance to run away with the misogynist Alladeen. And for a comic so willing to test boundaries, it is disheartening when you realize that the film is going to wrap things up in the stereotypical happy ending where love, power and glory is restored to our lead, murderous dictator or not. At the closing, Alladeen delivers a short speech that compares our waning democracy to his dream dictatorship. It’s a fleeting moment of bite in a film that is far too willing to appeal to its audience’s laziest assumptions and prejudices.
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Former stand-up, Bobcat Goldthwait takes his own shot at the distressing state of American culture in his entertaining muddle God Bless America. As Goldthwait’s stand-up career crashed around the new millennium, he has re-invented himself as a writer/director of surprisingly human comedies that show ordinary folks flirting with social taboos. His latest takes aim, literally, at the stars of reality TV, those outwardly beautiful people who are always ready to exhibit the ugliest of human behavior.
We see this world through the eyes of Frank (Mad Men‘s Joel Murray), a divorced middle-aged office worker fired from his job for showing benign but unwanted attention to a co-worker. Frank has the gun in his mouth when he spots a teenager on TV, furious that her parents have gotten her the wrong luxury car for her sixteenth birthday. He decides it is the lack of kindness in today’s world that really needs killing, and so he begins a cross-country trek to shoot down the meanest of today’s TV stars.
God Bless America, much like the country itself, is full of contradictions that it can’t quite solve, starting with a lead character who fights incivility by killing people. The story perfectly taps in to modern frustrations, yet it can’t let Frank enjoy the violence he unleashes without sacrificing the character’s humanity. After a ghoulishly sadistic fantasy in its opening, Goldthwait takes the easy way out and minimizes the violence while keeping its victims one-dimensional and unsympathetic. Along the way, Frank picks up an unlikely partner, a sixteen year-old misanthrope named Roxy (Tara Lynne Barr) who helps finish off the victims Frank only wings.
If you’ve seen Goldthwait’s earlier films, the genial bestiality comedy Sleeping Dogs Lie or 2009’s World’s Greatest Dad (where Robin Williams ghost authors a poetic suicide note when his irredeemable teenage son dies of auto-erotic asphyxiation) then you know of his knack for getting intelligent, nuanced comedy out of characters in lurid situations. The excitement here isn’t really Frank shooting a Rush Limbaugh stand-in or wiping out texting theater patrons, it is the long, measured soliloquies that Goldthwait puts in Frank’s mouth, decrying a withering level of public conversation that readily accepts cruel, violent denunciations as an equally valid viewpoint. Moments like Frank’s cubicle rant, with co-workers silently flashing disapproving glances as the red, white, and blue decorates every frame’s border, that are the films most memorable.
Casting Bill Murray’s younger brother Joel gives the film a rich center as well. You can’t help but see flashes of his superstar brother in his actions (as well as his lesser known acting brother, character great Brian-Doyle Murray) but Joel brings his own lumpen ennui to the role. Just sitting still, his dull-eyes watching TV, Murray radiates a deep sadness that recalls the bleary-eyed depths Jack Lemmon could bring to comic roles. The odd friendship that he begrudgingly forges with Zoey has a fatherly reality you imagine is rooted in Goldthwait’s relationship with his own teenage daughter. It’s these elements that linger more than the mechanics of getting the pair to their “American Superstar” TV apocalypse.
Unfortunately, like all of Goldthwait’s films, God Bless America seems a few tweaks away from getting its many runaway ideas across the finish line. It’s bracing when you hear Frank pick a target by it’s real-world name (“Diablo Cody is the only stripper with too much self-esteem!”), it makes you wonder how the film would play if it named names all along. And what if Frank aimed higher; these realty TV stars and political pundits aren’t the ones really pulling the strings. And what if Goldthwait found a more universal way to express this anger, since I’d bet the film’s Liberal-view of targets is the reason it is playing art houses over megaplexes. For all its warts and missed chances, God Bless America is a comedy that gives you a lot to roll over your mind, setting it apart from the great majority of the modern competition in its genre.