It’s a particularly bad weekend at the movies this week, folks. Two of the new releases (Battleship and What to Expect When You’re Expecting) will probably go down easily as the weakest movies of the entire summer.
It would be a complete wash-out of a movie week were it not for the saving grace of the delightfully offensive Sacha Baron Cohen. The man who brought us Borat returns with a cripplingly funny comedy about a dictator to save this week in movie-land. There’s a good chance that it will end up being the funniest damn movie of the summer, so if you enjoy laughing don’t miss out. You’ll certainly end up in tears if you go to either of the other stink piles shuffled into new release this week.
The Good: The Dictator
Borat turned British cult comedy icon Sacha Baron Cohen into a superstar overnight and that success was a both a blessing and a curse. Yeah, it was an instant classic but the fame that came along with that achievement meant that Cohen would have a hard time replicating the reality/comedy formula that saw him stage shock comedy pranks on innocent civilians. His follow-up, Bruno, was funny, but lacked the social commentary of Borat and the sense of surprise. Even worse, it meant that Cohen had dedicated a film to each of his iconic characters and suddenly had to start from scratch, with the world awaiting the results.
Well, his long-awaited follow up The Dictator is finally here and it’s a damn funny movie that proves Cohen can’t be written off yet. The guy wisely ditched his reality conceit, instead making a fairly traditional screwball comedy, albeit one with a premise that allowed him to dabble in his satiric, anarchistic, and delightfully juvenile comedy ways. It’s not a film that will suddenly enter debates over the greatest comedy ever made like Borat, but there’s a damn good chance that this thing will end up being the finest and funniest comedy of the year. That’s all we could really ask from Cohen at this point and it’s nice to see confirmation that he isn’t a one-trick naked wrestling pony.
This time at bat Cohen plays Aladeen, a prodigiously bearded dictator from a fictional Middle Eastern country. He’s still an average dude though, just one surrounded by an army of “virgins” who he tests out every night, beheads anyone who disagrees with him, and even hosts his own national Olympic ceremony simply to claim all the medals for himself. Okay, so he’s not an average guy, but Aladeen does fall comfortably into Cohen’s collection of human cartoons and self-empowered douchebags. Aladeen stands in for all of our favorite heavy-hitter dictators from Saddam Hussain to Kim Jong-Il (to whom the film is hilariously dedicated). He’s quickly whisked off to New York City for an inevitably controversial speech to the UN.
Unfortunately, Aladeen’s #2 is played by Ben Kingsley and is therefore evil. He shaves off Aladeen’s beard and sends him out into the street, replacing him with an idiotic body double (also played by Cohen) with plans to turn the country into a democracy and sell off the rich oil concerns to Chinese and US business interests. Aladeen is furious, but beardless and therefore powerless. However, he does find support in a hippie hyper-liberal vegan grocer (the perpetually underrated Anna Faris) who thinks his misogyny and delusions of grandeur are ironic. Then somehow Aladeen starts to feel for the pretty lady and her liberal ways seem to slip into his thoughts. Think she might change the Dictator? (Hint: no!)
It’s all just an excuse for Cohen to throw a bunch of gags at the audience and see what sticks. Thankfully, the hit to miss ratio is quite high with Cohen dabbling in nearly every form of comedy from slapstick to satire, poo jokes, and social commentary. In many ways it’s a far more conventional comedy that anything he’s made before, but in this case that isn’t a bad thing. For Cohen, it’s actually an experiment to see if he can create a character for a fully fictional world and sustain laughs through a conventional narrative. The guy succeeds in spades with another hilarious and easily imitated performance and tosses in a couple of gross-out gags like an impromptu birth that really test the limits of good taste.
The balance of clever and idiotic humor creates a movie to both please the masses and earn a few critical accolades. Sure, Cohen’s brand of comedy is becoming a wee bit predictable and there are some groaners hidden throughout, but compared to other Hollywood comedies and not Cohen’s past efforts, it’s a brilliant piece of work. As long as audiences can stop expecting the guy to make a new Borat every time out, Cohen should have quite a strong career. If nothing else, The Dictator proves he can still get shocks and laughs without having to trick people into being his co-stars and it will be exciting to see what he comes up with next. If you don’t mind being offended while laughing yourself silly, this might be your favorite flick of the summer thus far.
The Bad: Battleship
Here’s a shocker — that movie based on the old Battleship board game kind of stinks. Okay, so that was inevitable. However, the actual surprise is how boring the whole mess is. In theory, putting together two hours of aliens and battleships shooting the crap out of each other should have at least been a little exciting in a guilty pleasure kind of way. Unfortunately, the folks behind Battleship didn’t even deliver on that modest goal.
Instead their movie is a shaggy two-plus hours long with so many classic rock montages and boom boom explosion sequences that it pummels audiences into submission, and not in a good way. Though the movie tries desperately to recapture the magic of '90s action flicks like The Rock or Con Air, the results are a pale imitation at best. The constant barrage of loud noises and expensive visuals proves to be more exhausting than enthralling. By the end, you’ll want to grab a pack of aspirin and go to sleep, hoping that the sweet escape of dreamland will wash the whole mess from memory.
The movie stars Taylor Kitsch (who the producers probably assumed would be a star now after John Carter whoops!) as a perpetual screw-up who finds himself in the Navy after years of failure. He keeps screwing up in the Navy, of course, but he does at least have a blond bimbo girlfriend (Brooklyn Decker), which is every man’s dream, right? Unfortunately that golden haired princess’s father is Kitsch’s general (Liam Neeson, slumming it even lower than usual) who is so disgusted by his slacking ways that not only won’t he grant permission for them to wed, but he wants to kick the jerk out of the Navy as well. It all comes down to a big round of war games where Kitsch has to find a way to impress papa Neeson to keep his job and his set of boobs. Then, uh-oh — alien spacecraft crash into the water in the middle of the games and suddenly Hitch and the fleet of overwhelmed sea vessels have to find a way to kill enemies from another planet. Don’t worry, they do. It’s that kind of movie.
Now, it’s impossible to believe anyone had high expectations for this flick. All that the undemanding target audience will want are explosions and fast pacing. Had the filmmakers reveled in the inherent stupidity of the material and turned it into a goofy lark, it could have been fun. Instead, everyone seemed to take it very seriously, attempting to craft an advertisement for how awesome the US Navy is, and it’s hard to imagine anyone enjoying that take on the material.
There are a handful of amusing moments that will score laughs (a scene where the heroes fire their rockets blindly while looking at a grid like the original board game, the fact that the alien bullets look just like the Battleship pegs, and a hysterical sequence with geriatric Navy vets marching towards the camera in slow motion like a grey-haired twist on Reservoir Dogs). Had these scenes been intended as parody or camp, it would have been a sign of at least a little creativity or tongue-in-cheek humor from the folks responsible. Unfortunately, they were clearly played straight and the fact that those rounds of non-deliberate laughter were the biggest audience reactions is a very bad sign.
When the best you can get from an audience is mocking laughter at your movie, it’s a failure. Well, Battleship is one big stinking blockbuster failure and not even one that falls into the so-bad-it's-good category. It’s best just to ignore the fact that this movie even exists. You don’t want to encourage the people at Hasbro Films (that’s right, the toy company now has a production wing) to make more of these things. No good can come from that.
The Unwatchable: What to Expect When You’re Expecting
Yet as bad as Battleship is (and trust me, it’s baaaaaaad), somehow What to Expect When You’re Expecting is worse. Based on a popular series of self-help guides to pregnancy, this ensemble “comedy” is kind of like a pregnancy movie value pack. Rather than sitting through one played-out comedic tale of having a baby, you get five. There’s a reality TV fitness guru (Cameron Diaz) who risks complications by pushing herself too hard, a baby-store owner (Elizabeth Banks) finally having her own young 'un who goes through every conceivable complication, a 50-year-old race car driver (Dennis Quaid) having a late inning kid with his 20-something girlfriend, a 20-year-old (Anna Kendrick) knocked up over a one-night stand and forced to face the consequences, and an infertile photographer (Jennifer Lopez) who decides to adopt a baby from Ethiopia.
Between the five curiously aligned pregnancies, no cliché of the genre is left unexplored. You get 'em all at once to save you the trouble of having to watch another pregnancy movie (in a way, it’s almost a public service). Then, in a shrewd attempt to trick guys into entering the theater, there’s a group of dads (led by Chris Rock, Thomas Lennon, and Rob Huebel) who meet in the park for a baby club where they can still be dudes while trying to raise their kids.
That’s a whole lot of plot threads for one movie to handle and just as big of a mess as you’d expect. Trying to stitch all those threads together into a single 110-minute running time guarantees that none of the characters or stories are properly developed. Everything is rushed and every character slots into a well-worn character type. Had the filmmakers taken a goofy sketch comedy approach (like, say, Woody Allen’s Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Sex But Were Afraid to Ask did with similar self-help book source material) that wouldn’t really matter and the talented cast could have focused on laughs. But no, director Kirk Jones and company want this to be a sweet and moving tale as well. There’s not enough time for him to pull that off, so we’re stuck with five underwhelming melodramas and a consistent lack of laughs. It’s a bit of a disaster, offering nothing of worth to audiences and is actually a bit depressing to watch, given all of the talented performers who are being wasted simultaneously.
If you were even considering seeing What to Expect When You’re Expecting, for the love of god, don’t do it. This thing is a waste of time with absolutely no redeeming qualities. Harsh? Absolutely, but also true. Please take my advice so that I didn't suffer through this trash in vain.