Credits: Directed by Larry Charles and starring John C. Reilly, Ben Kingsley, Sacha Baron Cohen, Kevin Corrigan, Megan Fox, Anna Faris, Aasif Mandvi, J.B. Smoove, B.J. Novak, Jim Piddock and Fred Melamed.
Synopsis: The heroic story of a dictator (Sasha Baron Cohen) who risked his life to ensure that democracy would never come to the country he so lovingly oppressed.
Funny but lightweight political comedy lacks real edge.
It’s been said before, and here, I’ll say it again: Sacha Baron Cohen is a Teflon movie star/artist. Or to put it another way, there’s little his critics – at least in the mainstream media – can say that is bound to stick. His whole comic schtik seems to me, and I’m not the only one, a goad to critics and punters who cling helplessly to such hopes as ‘political correctness’ and such beleaguered certainties as ‘good taste’. Rude, crude, mean and relentlessly nasty, Baron Cohen’s comic vision draws, at least it seems to me, from a deep reservoir of anger. It’s axiomatic that all comedy is hostile; but behind the goofy parodies and his delight in those staples of cringe-comedy – sex and body malfunctions – Baron Cohen is a satirist that seethes with rage.
The new film has such traditional Baron Cohen targets as stupid Americans, stupid Arabs, celebrity hounds, the power mad, and an entire cast of racist and cultural stereotypes, but he adds more here, specifically, conceited world-aid charity workers and duplicitous diplomats from China. There are probably a few dozen more comedy chew-dolls I’ve missed in this summary but you get the idea. Of course, the big complaint about Baron Cohen is that his style of comedy fails to ‘position’ the viewer. In other words, are we laughing at Baron Cohen’s targets? Or is he tapping the inner-racist/sexist in us all? There lies the danger and discomfort in Baron Cohen’s style. But I don’t think The Dictator is nearly ‘scary’, at least as satire, nearly enough. Is this something new from Baron Cohen? A ‘safe’ comedy?”
Foregoing the in-character/doco approach of Bruno and Borat, the new film is an attempt at ‘straight comedy’. It’s a simple fish-out-of water-yarn. It takes a dictator called Aladeen from a fictional North African oil rich state called Wadiya and plonks him down in New York. Baron Cohen not only plays Aladeen, he also plays his ‘double’, an illiterate and intellectually challenged goat herder recruited to fool any would-be assassination attempt.
The Dictator is in NYC to appear before the UN. But in a plot to overthrow his ruthless regime, he is kidnapped in a scheme hatched by his ‘right-hand’, played with gleeful, eye-popping deadpan nuttiness by a very funny Ben Kinglsey. Aladeen escapes, and losing his beard, he’s no longer recognisable. A short haired young woman, Zoey (Anna Faris), a do-gooder of relentless good cheer, mistakes Aladeen as a refugee from Wadiya. She gets him a gig packing shelves at her Brooklyn based eco-sound, organic, feminist food-store collective, which is staffed by a roll call of global war refugees. Faris, a very charming actor, is very sweet (and I kept wondering what the hell is she doing in this movie?). Then I realised: it’s so Baron Cohen can hurl a series of hairy armpit, oral sex and Harry Potter gags at her.
The script by Baron Cohen, Alec Berg, David Mandel and Jeff Schaffer has no consistency or bite and eventually devolves into a saccharine romance between Zoey and Aladeen, who ultimately emerges as a sweetheart (despite the rape gags). The so-called political content is anodyne; there’s no mention of Islam, but Baron Cohen’s loathing of anti-Semitism emerges frequently. There’s a bit of incidental action where we see Aladeen play a Wii tennis game in which contestants slaughter Jews. It’s awful and it’s not an especially funny gag, mostly because Aladeen is, well, harmless. He’s not scary. Larry Charles’ direction doesn’t help; the film is glossy, even pretty. There’s no edge to it, and the performances don’t dig in. It has all the atmosphere of a skit show. On TV that’s fine, but in a motion picture, the wait between gags, as here, seems an eternity.
Don’t get me wrong. The so-called ‘boundary’ pushing is present and accounted for, but the gags are lightweight. There’s a birthing scene shot inside the womb of a woman in labour. Aladeen assists the birth, and once he sees the new born is a girl, he starts looking for a bin. I don’t know whether this means anything, but the biggest laugh at the public screening I attended came when Aladeen complains about the price tag for internet access at his Manhattan luxury hotel: “$20… and they call me a criminal!”
Right at the end, Baron Cohen unleashes a long speech that mocks white Western political arrogance by having the Dictator extol the merits of his anti-democracy. Imagine, he asks his crowd of peace-loving Americans, a state where all media is secretly controlled by one family? Or where jails could be filled by one racial group? Or where people could elect their leaders and not understand that those leaders do not have their best interests at heart?
I thought it was interesting that during this speech there was little laughter in the screening and it made me wonder just who Baron Cohen and his cohorts may believe they are talking to. This had a sharpness to it that was bracing, but the rest of the movie is toothless. The Dictator is very funny. But with Baron Cohen and his work, the laughs were part of a bigger project. Now it seems to be the only point.
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