Major style points to the makers of “Dear Dictator” for finding, sixty-plus years and 150 or so credits into his career, something truly different for Sir Michael Caine to play.
A Castro-like Caribbean communist dictator? No, he doesn’t do a Latin accent. He’s a knight and two-time Oscar winner, one of the greatest film stars of all time. He doesn’t need to.
The movie? Well, if the filmmakers were as ballsy in scripting it as they had in asking Michael Caine to co-star in it, they’d have had something.
“Dictator” is a daft comedy about a high school rebel, played with sullen, pouty relish by Odeya Rush, who becomes pen pals with a Latin American tyrant, just to irk her classmates, annoy her bad-decisions-specialist single mom (Katie Holmes, OUT there) and alarm the hippy social studies teacher (Jason Biggs) who assigned it.
Tatiana (Rush, of “Lady Bird”) wears camouflage shirts and platform combat boots and a bad attitude every day of her sophomore year in high school. She disapproves of her ulfiltered “skank mom,” the “biggest slut in the game” of love. Mom’s a dental hygienist who submits to foot lickings by her married dentist boss (Seth Green).
At school, Tatiana is such an outcast she’s subject to the charms of handsome fundamentalist Benny (Jackson Beard), who tempts her with Bible tracts detailing the parameters and decor of Hell. Which is catnip to her.
And when that “correspond with somebody you see as a role model” social studies assignment come up, she’s got one more way to lash out. Anton Vincent, bearded dictator of a backward, poor island nation that his family has been repressing for generations, is just the ticket.
“I admire his style,” she sneers. “Dictators get such a bad rap.”
And Vincent? With U.S. backed rebels threatening his hold on his sanctioned and embargoed island, he’s just happy to get a nice note from the kid.
“Dear Tatitiana, Welcome to the Revolution!”
They swap notes of mutual admiration until the coup occurs. Anton, needing somewhere to lay low, slips into the U.S. and into their house, where he upends their lives.
Co-writer/directors Lisa Addario, Joe Syracuse (“Amateur Night”) set this up as a fish-out-of-water comedy, but don’t find nearly enough about American suburbia for Anton to be shocked about. Mowing the lawn, confused by the neighbors for “Jose the Yard Man?”
What they strike gold with is in having the general/president for life school the kid in how to seize control of her school, upending the social order and cracking the mean girls who run it.
“How is it that the few always rule the many?” he asks. “Factions.” In high school, they’re called cliques.
“Take out the leaders,” he teaches. “Foment unrest. Assume authority.”
The high school “types” are both recognizable and believable. None of these “straight from the runway to a film role” supermodels in the making in this cast. The filmmakers, who have been in the business for decades, still manage some sharply observed high school slang. “Whale tails” and “Red Lobstering” somebody make their screen debuts.
The inept violence and poverty of the General’s rule at home is played for laughs, but not broadly enough. And his many over-the-top suggestions for changing Tatiana (and her mom’s) lives, the ruthlessness with which tyrants follow those three listed rules and cling to power afterwards, is a tad toothless.
That gives “Dear Dictator” the feel of a pulled-punch, a movie that could have gone to far more dangerous places than it does. Read that “Take out the leaders” instruction line again and see if there isn’t a bumbling orange-haired authoritarian it reminds you of.
Caine and his stunt double give fair value here, the diminutive Rush is a rising star and Holmes, sharing the screen with her “Batman Begins” co-star, hurls herself at this woman as if she’s auditioning for her cable TV comeback.
Because “Dear Dictator,” as funny as it is (in spots), just isn’t it.
MPAA Rating: unrated, comic executions, adult situations, profanity
Cast: Odeya Rush, Michael Caine, Katie Holmes. Jason Biggs.
Running time: 1:30