Some movies take place in a world that we’ll call “comedy reality.” This is clearly not the real world, nor is it quite the anarchic spoof world of, say, Airplane! or Scary Movie, but it’s an unabashedly silly alternate reality — one in which a man can kick someone with both feet simultaneously, a fire can be doused with a hose full of hummus, and a cell phone can get left in a woman’s womb as she gives birth.
We come to you today from a different world, one of competitive film criticism, where two vaguely similar movies can wrestle each other for Smackdown supremacy! In today’s matchup, our opponents both feature beloved comedy stars playing arrogant and/or ruthless Middle Easterners who come to New York and are humbled and redeemed by hard work and a star-crossed romance. As everyone knows, you don’t mess with Adam Sandler’s You Don’t Mess with the Zohan, but Sacha Baron Cohen’s The Dictator is gonna give it a shot anyway…
The Dictator eschews the episodic, semi-documentary, Jackass-ish style of Borat (2006) and Bruno (2009) for a far more conventional, scripted approach. It’s a fish-out-of-water tale, with Cohen donning another fake foreign accent and even faker facial hair as General Aladeen, the megalomaniacal military head of the fictitious nation of Wadiya.
Shortly after arriving in America, Aladeen is betrayed by his henchman Tamir Ben Kingsley — sorry, make that just Tamir (Ben Kingsley) — who replaces him with a slow-witted lookalike (also Cohen). Aladeen soon finds himself homeless and penniless in New York, where Zoey (Anna Faris), an outspoken feminist who runs a vegan co-op, takes pity on him. He also reunites with his old weapons expert Nadal (Jason Mantzoukas), and the two plot to restore him to power. But will his gradually developing feelings for Zoey change his heart?
The Defending Champion
Israel’s greatest counter-terrorist agent has a dream. Bored with the endless cycle of violence between his country and the Palestinians and also with the near-superpowers he possesses that make his job all but effortless, he decides to fake his own death and start fresh in America, where he can pursue his dream of becoming a world-class… hair-stylist.
He eventually finds himself working and falling for a Palestinian salon owner (Emmanuelle Chriqui), specializing in haircuts and backroom romps for elderly clientele, but his past threatens to ruin him when his new-found fame catches the eye of his old rivals.
The Zohan is actually one of Sandler’s more endearing characters, a heroic, good-hearted guy who is genuinely happiest when he’s pleasing others, be it with his scissors or his… other talents. By contrast, Aladeen starts out as easily Cohen’s most despicable character, neither as lovably bumbling as Borat nor as bravely flamboyant as Bruno. He’s a narcissistic, chauvinist, anti-Semitic monster who orders executions at the drop of a hat. The Zohan comes to America to escape his bellicose past; Aladeen has been ejected from a similar past and is desperately trying to return to it. First, Aladeen has to hit bottom so he can start over and slowly evolve into a decent man; Zohan is already quite evolved when we meet him (other than his overwhelming machismo), and his main purpose is to help those around him evolve. Notably, those would include an old nemesis played by John Turturro with his usual zaniness, and a cab driver with a score to settle, played by the reliably unfunny Rob Schneider.
But for the most part, we’re talking about two pretty similar cinematic experiences here. Both have a popular comic doing a silly Middle Eastern accent and bumbling through New York. Both are crammed with broad sight gags, quick verbal interplay, and crude sexual humor. Zohan‘s raunch mainly springs from the notion of Zohan pleasuring scores of libidinous middle-aged and elderly women (which would be laudably progressive if the movie itself didn’t seem so grossed out by it). Dictator relies less overall on sex jokes, but when it does, its R rating enables it to be a tad more outrageous than the PG-13 Zohan. Each puts its protagonist in the most unlikely romance possible with characters played by former Entourage actresses — Zohan with a feisty Palestinian portrayed quite likably by the gorgeous Chriqui, and Aladeen with hippie-chick Faris, an annoying, scratchy-voiced perfomer whose appeal remains lost on me.
Both movies are interested in making you laugh and little beyond that; the main difference is how they try. Almost all the jokes in Zohan can be divided into a short list of categories, each less funny than the last:
1. Old women being naughty
2. Broad physical gags (iterally no laws of physics apply to the Zohan’s powers)
3. Tweaking Middle Eastern cliches (electronics store haggling, cab driving, hummus, etc.)
4. Terrorism as a banal bureaucracy (Schneider puts his network on a conference call)
5. Celebrity cameos, ranging from the predictable (Chris Rock as a Jamaican cab driver) to the pointless (Mariah Carey as herself) to the unexpectedly effective (Dave Matthews as a white supremacist for hire) to the downright weird (Michael “Let’s get ready to rumble!” Buffer as the corporate villain)
Dictator offers its share of cameos as well, including John C. Reilly as an out-of-his-league torturer and Megan Fox playing herself (unconvincingly). But unlike Zohan, its jokes are all over the map; the movie (like Cohen) will do literally anything for a laugh. Which is why it’s so disheartening to report how rarely it actually gets one. Aside from the occasional chuckle, I spent a lot of its measly 75 minutes or so) waiting for the funny to kick in, and it never did. Its best moments feature the heretofore unknown Mantzoukas making an ideal no-nonsense straight man to Cohen’s useless idiot, but those scenes are too little, too late.
Cohen is an immense talent and an engaging performer, but his biggest laughs have been hugely bolstered by his singular method of getting them, by putting his brand of nuttiness in the context of reality. Even in his best scenes, such as his pantomimed “encounter” with a spirit in Bruno, what elevates them into comic genius is our awareness of a real-life psychic watching this and reacting to it (or trying not to). Picture that scene, or any of Borat‘s most memorable scenes, written as fiction, and you’ll get an idea of what’s missing here. That, and it’s basically pretty stupid.
Two fairly similar movies in plot, theme, and disappointing lack of laughs. Zohan‘s main edges are due to its casting, with Sandler somewhat more charming than Cohen, and Chriqui infinitely more appealing than Faris. But beyond that, as little as The Dictator did for me, I’ll take its R-rated go-for-broke audacity and occasionally amusing Cohen-Mantzoukas pairing over Zohan‘s repetitive sniggering and phony can’t-we-all-get-along sentiments. Dictator is also a whole 40 minutes shorter than Zohan, so as flaccid an experience as it is, at least it’s a briefer one. I’d recommend practically any of Cohen’s other movies over either of these, but since, as always, there are no ties in Smackdown, the winner, by a beard, is…The Dictator.