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Original title: Coup d’Etat

D: Lisa Addario, Joe Syracuse / 90m

Cast: Michael Caine, Odeya Rush, Katie Holmes, Seth Green, Jason Biggs

Tatiana Mills (Rush) is fifteen years old when she decides to start writing letters to island dictator, Anton Vincent (Caine). Intrigued by her letters, Vincent writes back, and the pair develop a pen pal relationship that involves Tatiana telling him about her life and problems, and Anton proffering advice on how to deal with them. Many of her problems revolve around school (where she’s not the most popular girl), and her relationship with her mother, Darlene (Holmes). When Anton is the victim of a coup d’etat and has to flee his island country, he heads for the US, where Tatiana finds him hiding out in the garage. In return for allowing him to stay with them, Tatiana and Darlene let Anton help out with various jobs around the house, and continuing to help Tatiana with her problems. While Darlene becomes more confident in how to deal with her boss (and lover) Dr Seaver (Green), Anton teaches Tatiana how to deal with the girls who pick on her, and how to become a rebel – just like him. But the authorities are getting closer to finding him…

Yet another movie that has its origins in an unproduced Black List script – this time from 2006 – Dear Dictator is ostensibly a comedy that strives for relevance but falls well short thanks to its depiction of Anton as a sub-par Castro lookalike, and Tatiana’s tired teenage problems. It doesn’t help either that Anton vacillates between being a hard line dictator and a kindly surrogate grandfather figure. By adopting this approach to the character, writer/directors Addario and Syracuse miss out on the chance to make Anton’s stay in suburbia a truly subversive experience. Instead of making him a good man at heart, how much more satisfying it would have been if his extreme political practices had led to Tatiana adopting more than just his advice on how to deal with bullies. The movie makes a half-hearted attempt at this, but pulls Tatiana back from the edge before things can get too serious (it is a comedy, after all). Likewise, Tatiana’s problems are the stuff of too many previous movies to prompt much more than tired acknowledgment, followed quickly by deeply lodged ennui. As their relationship develops, the script shifts the balance of power between them backwards and forwards until one of them is required to make a wholly expected sacrifice.

So what we have here is an unproduced Black List script that could probably have written itself, such is its reliance on the clichĂ©s of teen dramas, and its determination to make Anton more sympathetic than dangerous. With both its central pairing and its central dynamic proving so unrewarding, there’s only Darlene’s interaction with Dr Seaver to fall back on. Ranging from exploitative to criminal (and with an element of co-dependency thrown in for good measure), their relationship provides the subversive ingredient the movie needs so desperately elsewhere (it’s certainly disturbing to see Green licking Holmes’s toes with such relish). But it’s not enough to rescue the movie from avoidable mediocrity, and despite surprisingly good performances from Caine, Rush and Holmes (particularly Holmes), it’s Addario and Syracuse’s inability to give the movie a coherent through line or tone that damages it most of all. Falling foul of that old no-no, the consecutive scenes that have no relation to each other, Dear Dictator is disjointed and unsure at times if drama or humour is the more appropriate context for the material it’s dealing with. Which is awkward as this is clearly meant to be a comedy – probably.

Rating: 4/10 – some of Caine’s more recent choices haven’t been the best, and Dear Dictator is another one to add to the list (though it’s not in the same league as Jaws: The Revenge (1987) – and what could be?); with only a fleeting awareness of how uneven it all is, the movie loses its way very early on and never finds its way back.

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