The Dictator is more like a raunchy Mel Brooks comedy, and although Cohen and Faris are all amusing, there is a distinct sense throughout the film that you’ve seen this all before.
Sacha Baron Cohen is best known for creating comedic characters that often walk the line between silly caricatures and sly social satires that mirror our own stereotypes. Ali G: Indahouse, Borat and Brüno were all clear evidence that Cohen has something relevant to say, and that he has no problem having a little fun (sometimes at our expense) while doing so.
With The Dictator, Cohen has offered up his most cohesive (and possibly instigative) film yet – but whether he’s laughing with us or at us, or whether or not you enjoy the punch line, are the questions hanging over this send-up of politics, personal philosophies, and everything in between.
Cohen stars as Admiral General Aladeen, supreme dictator of the oil-rich African nation of Wadiya. Aladeen lives the good life of a dictator – hiring celebrities for sex, executing whoever he wants – until his burgeoning nuclear program stirs a confrontation with the U.N. Aladeen heads to New York to reiterate his life-long commitments to oppression and keeping Wadiya’s oil out of foreign hands, but he is betrayed by his closest advisor Tamir (Sir Ben Kingsley), who has long wished to sell Wadiya’s oil to foreign interests, thereby opening the country to the world.
After barely escaping an attempt on his life, Aladeen finds that Tamir has replaced him with a mentally-challenged body-double who will sign a new constitution in a few days’ time, thereby turning Wadiya into a democratic nation. With his imperial beard gone Aladeen is all but unrecognizable – just another poor immigrant wandering the streets of New York. He is taken in by a new-age leftist feminist vegan pacifist named Zoey (Anna Faris), who runs an organic grocery store – but old dictator ways die hard, and Aladeen soon learns that he must adapt a new approach to civil relations if he hopes to find allies in his mission to save his country from freedom, and deliver it back unto sweet oppression.
The Dictator, as stated, is probably the most cohesive narrative yet for a Cohen film. Unlike his previous efforts (which were more like collections of sketches wrapped around a loose premise), the film has an actual story to tell, with legitimate character and narrative arcs. The story’s themes are familiar (walking a mile in another person’s shoes, etc.), but the twisted way in which they are conveyed is where the humor comes from.
Cohen co-wrote the film with Alec Berg, David Mandel and Jeff Schaffer – the minds behind the criminally underrated Eurotrip – which is evident in the alternating mix of witty (sometimes scathing) satirical humor, and lowbrow slapstick/ potty humor. While the film offers laughs on both the high and low roads, some people may be put off by the sheer amount of shock-value humor, as Cohen and Co. use this outrageous character to offend just about every (and I do mean every) racial/political/religious/gender/sexual group there is. If you are at all sensitive to, or put-off by, crass humor, you will not last long in The Dictator (a young couple in my screening certainly didn’t). The finale of the movie is also likely to be controversial for some viewers; without spoiling it, let’s just say if you are the type of American who is not open to having your politics and patriotism challenged, you too will want to avoid The Dictator. Consider yourself warned.
While the film – Cohen’s third collaboration with Seinfeld/Curb Your Enthusiasm guru Larry Charles – is competent and effective, at this point the formula is beginning to feel somewhat old. If you’ve seen Cohen’s other films, you pretty much know what you’re getting with this one – and unlike Borat and Brüno, this film doesn’t have those delicious slices of real-life where Cohen encounters unsuspecting people, whose reactions to his outlandish behavior were often the funniest things about his films. The Dictator is more like a raunchy Mel Brooks comedy, and although Cohen and Faris – and the parade of comedic and celebrity guest stars (keep an eye out) – are all amusing, there is a distinct sense throughout the film that you’ve seen this all before. When the jokes hit, they really hit, but a lot of the time is spent on juvenile antics – a lot of which are long past their expiration dates (it’s so funny, Arabic language sounds like throat cough!).
The amount of sheer laughter I heard during the parts of the film showcasing low-rung stereotypes or gross-out jokes – compared to the more silent moments when Cohen uppercuts viewers with some scathing satirical commentary – left me wondering whether The Dictator was indeed a bit of witty fun, or rather just further affirmation of very real ignorance, and stereotypical thinking. (For instance, how many people will get that Aladeen is – as he says at one point – not an Arab but an African? Or is John C. Reilly’s bodyguard character reflecting an ugly truth when he responds, ‘You’re all basically Arab.’)
The question of whether the character, or the audience, is in fact the butt of the joke looms large over much of Cohen’s work – but this sly/insightful portrait is one that the comedian has already painted, and re-painted, and painted again. How many examples of the same idea can a comedian successfully convey on film? I, personally, would answer with: “Not many more.”
The Dictator is now playing in theaters everywhere. It is Rated R for strong crude and sexual content, brief male nudity, language and some violent images.