Dear Dictator (2018)

Sometimes, an interesting premise and good actors aren’t enough to carry a movie, especially when a lot of potential winds up being wasted. Such is the case with Dear Dictator, a movie which sees Michael Caine play a Caribbean dictator named Anton who finds himself in suburban America after his country is bombed, hiding out in the garage of a teenage girl, Tatiana (Odeya Rush) and her mother (Katie Holmes). Tatiana wrote to him as a way to make a mockery of a social studies assignment, citing his sense of style as inspirational. Now he’s living with her. And he’s going to teach her a set of techniques—that he used to become a dictator—to help her overthrow the mean girls and become the new queen bee.

The film had the opportunity to be two things: a political satire about this man and his way of running his country and a social satire about high school life—and the way that it functions, in effect, like a country run by a dictatorship. And if it could be about both of those things, marrying the two ideas into one holy matrimony of a production, we’d potentially be talking about another classic. It fails on both accounts.

Michael Caine’s dictator is not a good person. We are meant to like him, in large part because he’s being played by Michael Caine. The film has to have both us and its characters laugh off torture and murder perpetuated by this man. We’re not meant to understand or empathize with or even laugh at him; we’re genuinely supposed to like him. There’s no satirical aspect to him. If there ever was, it’s been lost in the decade-plus since the screenplay was originally written.

As for the social satire aspect to high school life, Dear Dictator name-drops Mean Girls, disrespecting it in the process—we have bigger problems than diet pills nowadays, it proclaims. It wishes it could be Mean Girls. Tatiana wants to overthrow the “Slushies” (read: Plastics) and uses Anton’s philosophies in order to do so. Only a small portion of its time is dedicated to this, anyway, and it lacks any bite or insight, as is true of the rest of the time it’s on screen. It’s undercooked to a large degree.

So, then, what’s left? A bunch of scenes with the characters hanging out, doing nothing much that’s of consequence. A couple feel like skits. Very little of it is funny. It’s always a pleasure to watch Michael Caine but it’s anyone’s guess why he’s in this. He’s supposed to be a Castro-like dictator of a Caribbean island, a job for which he’s miscast. He’s fine as an actor, obviously; it’s just weird casting. Odeya Rush and Katie Holmes are good as a sometimes-warring daughter-mother pairing, although their characters, as is true of Caine’s as well, are pretty thin.

Dear Dictator lacks the bite, wit, and insight to be an effective satire—either political or social—and it’s missing the jokes it needs to be an effective comedy. Its characters and plot are lacking, and the theoretically strong premise finds itself going to waste. The actors aren’t bad but they aren’t given much to work with—both from a character perspective or a comedy one. It’s a thin movie that fails to achieve its goals.

Conclusion: Dear Dictator fails to capitalize on its potentially strong premise.

Recommendation: Just rewatch Mean Girls.

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