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FILM REVIEW: The Dictator vs Bernie

Categories: Movies

It's an old dictum that's so obvious it's almost cliché: truth is stranger than fiction. But it's also the secret power behind Sacha Baron Cohen's comedies.

The cringe-worthy pleasures of his previous films Bruno and Borat were twofold. First, there was the initial outrageous and offensive vision or statement, followed by an equally amusing reaction of a poor schmuck caught in his trap. Sometimes the targets were disgusted, sometimes they just calmly agreed. It was a warped funhouse mirror reflected back at us.

The biggest shock of Cohen's new comedy The Dictator is that it's a scripted comedy. Cohen's simply too big, too recognizable to be ambushing Joe Public anymore. Instead, he's hamming it up as the Supreme Leader Dictator Aladeen, a bearded megalomaniac presiding over the fictional Republic of Wadiya.

Sacha Baron CohenSacha Baron Cohen portrays Admiral General Aladeen in a scene from The Dictator. (Melinda Sue Gordon/Paramount Pictures/Associated Press)

After an initial opening sequence setting up the racist, ignorant Aladeen as an Ahmadinejad -wannabe intent on taunting the west with a nuclear bomb, The Dictator relocates to Manhattan for a speech at the UN. Faster than you can say Trading Places, Aladeen finds himself penniless and beardless in the Big Apple and forced to work at local organic co-op under Zoey (Anna Farris.)

If there's a prank Cohen has pulled it's that under the veil of a War on Terror satire, The Dictator is actually a romantic comedy in disguise, with Aladeen as a foul-mouthed fish out of water who falls for Zoey, a granola-minded do-gooder.

At his best, Cohen is a wildly offensive, taboo-busting satirist who makes us question why we laugh so hard at him. Without the real folks, however, his humour loses its edge. Where Cohen falls flat without a real-life accomplice, however, it's the small town truths that make director Richard Linklater's new comedy Bernie such an entertaining yarn (one based on a true story).

Stealing a page from Borat, Linklater punctuates this film about a rural romance gone wrong with real people who are only too happy to speculate about the titular character, a mincing mortician, and Marjorie, a wealthy widow who loomed over the tiny Texan town of Carthage.

Jack BlackJack Black as Bernie Tiede in a scene from Bernie. (Millennium Entertainment/Associated Press)

Like a Greek chorus of chatterboxes, the vignettes of townspeople ground this twisted tale and give it a unique voice. Unlike Cohen and his collaborator Larry Charles, Linklater films the townies with a certain kindness. There's poetry in the description of Marjorie's snooty ways -- "Her nose was so high, she'd drown in a rainstorm" -- or the tiny East Texas town "behind the Pine Curtain."

Also, I give a tip of the Stetson to Matthew McConaughey as Danny Buck, a cowboy hat-wearing district attorney. At first, he seemed too striking for a film filled with Norman Rockwell-esque faces, but a scene in which he wipes his mouth with his tie in court pretty much sold it for me.

Of course, the centre of the action is Linklater's School of Rock star Jack Black. Where The Dictator's Cohen seems to be in a state of arrested evolution, Bernie finds Black stretching into more serious territory.

Black pours his seemingly inexhaustible enthusiasm into this role. His Bernie is a glee-filled puppy dog who soothes widows, directs musicals and belts it out like Al Green with the church chorus.

However, there's darkness hiding behind his constant smile and pencil-thin mustache. Linklater opens the question to the townspeople, asking: "Was Bernie gay?" as he catalogs the man's devotion to Marjorie, played with a furious scowl by the one and only Shirley MacLaine.

Though the film loses some momentum switching gears from an odd-couple romance to missing person mystery, Linklater raises the stakes with a climatic court scene set in a neighbouring county. The director grew up in East Texas, which might explain his fondness for the material. He's described Bernie as his Fargo and, though he skirts the bleakness at the heart of the Coen Brothers film, Linklater's tale is a masterful blend of fact and fiction that will keep you guessing right to the closing credits.

The Dictator - RATING: 2.5 out of 5

Bernie - RATING: 4.5 out of 5

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