Michael Caine has been in a lot of bad movies throughout his legendary career. After all, this is the same performer who appeared in Neil Jordan's masterful Mona Lisa, only to follow it with Jaws: The Revenge the very next year (a movie the actor confesses to never watching, but knows it bought him a damn fine house). How else does one get to 167 credits on their resume? By being a constant professional and knowing that saying "no" to even the worst project is still turning down a potential new car or vacation in the Bahamas. What's often lost in the conversation when discussing our greatest living actors is the fact that – no matter how revered they may be in our minds – every title they sign on for is still "work", for better or worse.
Nevertheless, Dear Dictator – a strange, mean-spirited indie coming of age comedy in which Caine plays the titular island despot, Anton Vincent, now hiding out in American suburbia – still makes you wonder if the eighty-four-year-old living icon should possibly tell his agent to use the word "pass" a touch more frequently. To be honest, the premise for co-writers/directors Lisa Addario and Joe Syracuse's picture (which earned them a spot on the ‘06 Black List with their original spec script Coup d'Etat) is actually pretty clever, and certainly contains enough room for a rather biting social satire. With the aid of the violent fascist, teenage rebel Tatiana (Odeya Rush) schemes to overthrow her school's most popular "mean girl" clique. Only instead of milking that angle for all the weird, dark humor it contains, Addario & Syracuse instead try to turn Dear Dictator into a heartwarming comedy where the harbored militaristic ruler becomes a fatherly figure in the girl and her mother's (Katie Holmes) home.
Franky, it's sort of fascinating to watch a movie consistently take the least interesting route possible at every single narrative turn. To make matters worse, there are no dramatic stakes set up that are worth caring about. Tatiana's home life really isn't that bad, except for when her Jesus freak bestie (Jackson Beard) abstains from sex until a Heathers-lite social princess corners him at Bible camp, causing the (at least) bi-curious kid to atone for his "sins" through self-mutilation. Meanwhile, her ditzy mom is caught up in an affair with a married dentist (Seth Green) who harbors a foot fetish that would make Quentin Tarantino blush.
At school, Tatiana's social studies teacher (Jason Biggs) is a bit hard on her, and might be sneaking around in the backyard with a camera at night. But Anton sees to it that all these oddball figures in the girl’s universe are dealt with accordingly, while simultaneously becoming a sort of domestic guru to the single mom who's never had a man around the house. Again, on paper this all sounds kind of funny, but the flat, mid-'90s Dimension Films approach to every bad taste bit would have John Waters shaking his head in disappointment.
How does the duo fail to land every gag? For starters, Caine is sleepwalking through the role, only coming alive when he gets to waterboard one of these misfits in the garage, or cook himself a plate of caramelized bananas. In fairness to the actor, this British-Caribbean political criminal is never given an interior life of his own. He's simply there to act in service to a bunch of lame jokes he's placed at the center of, all of which explore the tired theme, "suburbia is so wacky and perverted in its own way" (a subtext which is made text by having Anton's disguise be a Halloween costume of the "Well Dressed Man" from Blue Velvet at one point). But at least the role isn't downright embarrassing like Holmes', who's asked to play a floozy parent with zero depth, running around in skimpy outfits and her underwear while steadily chugging toward a half-assed arc of self-empowerment. The creators of Dear Dictator could claim to be skewering the very type of suburban malaise movie it is, but that reading also feels like it's giving the picture way more credit than it actually deserves. Either way, it sucks.
There must've been something on the page that was attractive to not only Caine, but those who also considered taking the role before he signed (a list that includes both Robert De Niro, Alfred Molina and Anthony Hopkins). So, the only people to blame here are Addario & Syracuse, who block and shoot every scene with an energy that makes each week's installment of The Big Bang Theory seem downright avant-garde by comparison. Wyatt Troll’s over-lit compositions are staged from the Kevin Smith school of "two people enter the frame and talk", as each scenario simply leads to the next, hitting plot points in predictable fashion until we reach the predestined happy-go-lucky finale. While Dear Dictator’s certainly not the worst line on Caine's incredibly long CV, it also can’t be one he's proud of, leaving the viewer to wonder what item on his Amazon Wish List he crossed off when the production met his quote.
Dear Dictator is playing now in select theaters and on VOD.