Imperial Fantasies: The Dictator and Battleship

05/21/2012 4:03 PM |

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It’s now been more than ten years since Sacha Baron Cohen, in the persona of Brüno Gehard, asked a thoroughly zonked-out fashionista whether he agreed with Austrian critics that “Osama bin Laden is like the best-dressed guy.” It is, in the great Ali G tradition, a joke with many butts—the fashion industry, UBL himself, folks who might assume the luminaries of high fashion talk like this amongst themselves, etc. In his latest film, The Dictator, which opened last week, Baron Cohen is still doing a full-immersion character, and he’s still rolling out the bin Laden jokes (the terrorist mastermind didn’t actually die in Abbottabad, and he’s a terrible houseguest!). But the British comic is no longer asking unwitting people any questions, and The Dictator, directed by Borat and Brüno’s Larry Charles, feels directionless from the beginning.

North African despot Admiral General Aladeen is part Hussein, part Qaddafi, and part Kim (the film kicks off with a dedication to that notorious movie buff), all of them, of course, now dearly departed. Unlike, Borat, and Brüno, Aladeen is also from a fictional country, Wadiya, a nation with untapped oil reserves and a budding nuclear program. Early on in the film, Aladeen dispatches one of his top scientists (Aasif Mandvi) to the executioner after a disagreement about whether the top of a missile should be pointy or round.

It is as if Baron Cohen and Charles take aim at American foreign policy, and then decline to fire. Aladeen travels to New York to address the U.N., where his greedy brother (Ben Kingsley) manages to install a hayseed Aladeen double (also Baron Cohen) in his place. His beard shorn off by a mercenary U.S. black-ops agent (John C. Reilly), the real Aladeen is eventually taken in by vegan feminist Zoey (Anna Faris), the proprietor of a Brooklyn coop. (“Brooklyn” here mostly means rooftop gardens and Grizzly Bear, but we do glimpse the “Marcy Ave.—Little Wadiya” stop on the JMZ.) At the store, Aladeen ascends to “supreme grocer,” and realizes his love for Zoey as he delivers a shopper’s baby in the aisles—a scene that recalls both Freddy Got Fingered (an elastic umbilical) and Enter the Void (a couple shots from inside the vaginal canal). Soon thereafter Baron Cohen slams his own bare crotch into the window of a Midtown hotel in a bid to wrest back his high office.

There is a late-game speech that equates latter-day American democracy to a thoroughly repressive regime, but the sheer extremity of the radical feminist—torturer despot culture clash has long since rendered this film politically toothless. You suspect that by making Aladeen and Zoey fall in love, Baron Cohen and Charles are trying to back up their protagonist’s assertions that perhaps America is not so different from the dictatorships she makes such a show of opposing, but the movie delights too much in going off-topic for the against-all-odds romance to function as anything but a plot contrivance. All The Dictator’s most pointed jokes are about an ongoing exchange between Hollywood celebrities and tyrannical world leaders (jewels buy Aladeen a night with Megan Fox; a Chinese power player claims Tommy Lee Jones let him “roll it” in his fingers). Meanwhile, Aladeen grows more Dr. Evil—like with every passing minute, a snowballing stereotype headed nowhere in particular.

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Something resembling an international love story unfolds as well in Peter Berg’s already famously egregious Battleship, also new in theaters: Mere nautical miles from Pearl Harbor, rivals from the United States and Japan team up to rid Earth of humanoid amphibian invaders from outer space—with a crucial assist from The Art of War. All the while, 9/11 predictably casts a long shadow, from the first of an incredible proliferation of explosions: UFOs bear down from distant Planet G, toppling a Hong Kong skyscraper as they fall from the sky; papers scatter everywhere, suit-clad businessmen run for their lives, and footage of the whole thing appears to run on repeat for the duration of the 24/7 news cycle.

The most formidable spacecraft—an evil monolithic gizmo surrounded by some sort of force field—sets down not far from where model seaman Stone Hopper (Alexander Skarsgård), his handsome fuck-up brother (John Carter of Mars), and a stern Japanese captain (Tadanobu Asano) are participating in naval exercises overseen by a barely-there Liam Neeson. The object is flanked in the water by two platform-beacons that shoot bluish beams into the sky—surely this will remind any sentient resident of the state of New York, if not any citizen of the USA entire, of the annual Tribute in Light at Ground Zero. The ETs “want to phone home,” as Hamish Linklater’s Goldblum-lite scientist observes, but mostly they want to subliminally mock both our tragedies and our means of memorializing them. What better occasion for the American Navy, buoyed by Petty Officer Rihanna’s dead aim, to flex its muscle?

Berg, the director of special-agent thriller The Kingdom, and screenwriters Erich and Jon Hoeber have adapted most Americans’ earliest experience with the concept of naval warfare (properties don’t preexist in a vacuum…) into something not unlike one of those National Guard ads that used to stomp on sitcom featurettes during the so-called preshow entertainment. To a certain degree, this works, however queasily. The 131-minute Battleship moves along briskly, building out its loud-and-clear starboard-leaning message with the requisite digital razzle-dazzle, tacked-on “creative” choices (the aliens have saber-tooth beards), and mid-twentieth-century notions of American might and benevolence (while pardoning some key mid-twentieth-century enemies).

A ways into the movie, the decommissioned USS Missouri—now a floating museum—joins the fight, after old-timer war heroes apply a bit of elbow grease. So resourceful and well-equipped are the American armed forces that heavy artillery may be recovered even from the realm of tourist kitsch. One leaves Battleship wondering how these high-seas warriors might have weaponized something so seemingly benign as a movie-theater concession, or a projection booth.

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