The obvious point of comparison for The Dictator would seem to be Borat or even Bruno. After all, the film reteams Sacha Baron Cohen with director Larry Charles, while providing a vehicle for exploring American society. However, The Dictator is a very different beast – it’s a much safer film, which is quite something to say about a film featuring a joke about “911 2012.” It is more conventional, more accessible, and more driven by a clearly focused narrative. In a way, it feels almost closer to Ali G in da House, only a lot funnier.
The Dictator is a very funny film, but it does feel like Cohen is a little more constrained than usual, a lot more rigidly structured. This lacks the sort of anarchic spirit that viewers have come to expect from Cohen, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t miss it. Still, Cohen has a unique ability to blend offensive boundary-crossing with classic comedy, and The Dictator feels like a film that will have a broader appeal than his cult hits. Despite the abundance of jokes about male and female anatomy, I think this might be the first Sacha Baron Cohen film I would recommend to my parents.
Cohen has a gift for being extremely offensive and strangely affable at the same time. The movie makes recurring jokes about how our lead character is a rapist racist misogynist who pals around with Osama Bin Ladin, and still finds time to work in comedy movie staples like the dim-witted doppelgänger, slapstick stunts (involving a grapple gun) and soundtrack gags (with most of the soundtrack consisting of distinctly Wadiyan covers of very Western songs). The comedy is incredibly broad, allowing Cohen to play to all extremities. There’s gross-out humour, comedy of manners, word-play, sight gags and situational comedy, all handled remarkably well. You’d imagine that such a wide approach would create an erratic and chaotic mess, but Cohen manages to unify them quite well.
The rapid-fire approach works so well because Cohen seems to throw everything at the wall in an attempt to see what sticks. It honestly seems, and I mean this as a sincere complement, that no good idea was discarded no matter how jarring or surreal the transition might be. We go from jokes about the state of Israel to discussions of cartoon nuclear bombs to more crass and offensive comedy. I can only imagine how many groups must be lining up to protest The Dictator, and I can see news reports of various groups describing it as “insensitive” or “exploitative” or “racist” or “sexist.” Odds are there will be something in here that will offend everybody, be it physically, politically or socially. I know, for example, the scene featuring a phone call during an impromptu delivery skirted a line for me, but that’s part of the fun.
There is no line – and I think that’s why Cohen’s comedy works. It isn’t that his comedy targets particular groups. It instead fires indiscriminately. If you are a stereotype, or deserving of mockery, you will end up on Cohen’s radar. Of course there are gags about foreign political systems and cultures, but there are also gags about racial insensitivity in American society. And, of course, most politically sensitive critics seem to discount that audiences are laughing at the insensitivity of these characters, rather than with them, which is a crucial distinction.
People will inevitably Cohen’s films encourage racism or sexism or other forms of discrimination, suggesting that some audiences will be encouraged to reinforce their prejudices by what they see on screen. That is, to be fair, complete nonsense. If people get that message from his films, then they are probably racist or sexist already. And they are probably idiots, without wanting to offend discerning viewers. The response to idiots shouldn’t be to dumb down everything and making entertainment intellectually “childproof”, it should be to try to educate those idiots and correct their thinking. If those arguments about the film being misinterpretted hold water, the problem is not with Charles and Cohen, but with the idiots watching the film.
That said, the movie does have some significant flaws. It is funny, and consistently so, but it also feels strangely conventional. Watching it, it almost seems like the jokes about sexual organs and “rape centres” were inserted to blur the way that General Aladeen is perhaps Cohen’s most conventional character to date. While the comedy pitches the character as “the last dictator”, his arc is disappointingly straightforward. While Cohen does carefully subvert some of the more obvious attempts at redeeming the character, Aladeen feels a little too safe and predictable.
He doesn’t seem evil as much as misinformed. While Cohen has characters joke about his crimes against humanity, we are never shown them. Those actions involve murder, child abuse and sexual assault, but none of these are shown on screen. Obviously they’d ruin the comedy, but it does limit the extent to which Aladeen can be seen to cross some sort of moral event horizon. When he does do anything inhuman on screen, it’s typically due to insensitivity or misinformation rather than malice. He can’t, for example, see that his uncle is conspiring against him. He doesn’t understand that a shot to the head kills his body double.
Part of this is undoubtedly due to the fact that Cohen is a very rarely talented comedic performer. We’ve seen the actor branching out over the past few years and working with directors like Tim Burton or Martin Scorsese. He was even scheduled to appear in Django Unchained, but dropped out. It’s very rare to see a wit as sharp as Cohen’s, with a knack for comedic timing and improvisation, paired so perfectly with genuine dramatic talent. We laugh at Aladeen, but Cohen manages to find a strangely paradoxically human heart at the core of the despot. It’s hard to truly hate him, even though we know that we should.
While his upbringing and stupidity cannot excuse his behaviour, they do mitigate our response to it. We almost feel sorry for a character who grew up never knowing any different. “I just want somebody to cuddle,” he remarks, and we’re frequently shown the image of the General asleep cradling a pillow. As a result, the satire never feels as sharp as it should, because Cohen manages to keep Albadeen far more likable than he really should be, if we stop to think about it. It feels just a little bit softer than Cohen’s more aggressive approach. And, one or two gags not withstanding, the movie seems to redeem him… almost, at least.
That said, I could have done without the somewhat heavy-handed political commentary. Borat and Bruno skilfully explored some of the darker sides of American life, and the attitudes that can unconsciously exist. They were biting and raw in their commentary. Albadeen seems to be lacking that sort of sophistication we got from Bruno and Borat. Nothing here compares to that memorable sequence where Borat convinced an audience to sing Throw the Jew Down the Well during one of Cohen’s HBO specials. That was a very powerful moment, and one that rightfully feels like it is pointing at something that is too often overlooked. There’s nothing as biting and powerful here.
On the other hand, The Dictator pauses to vilify oil companies and to make jokes about how America is more a dictatorship than a democracy. As Cohen rhymes off arguments familiar to everybody who has ever attended any student demonstration or read an anti-American pamphlet, the film seems to collapse. It isn’t that his commentary isn’t valid – it’s just that it’s crass and regurgitated and has been covered elsewhere better. There are smarter and funnier ways to make the political point that Cohen and Charles wanted to make, so it just feels lazy. It’s just one moment, but it feels painful that it’s the most political moment in the film. The Dictator feels like it should be smarter than that, for all its cheap shots.
Still, those are minor flaws. The Dictator entertains. It is consistently funny. It just feels like, underneath all the wii!terrorism and poop jokes, it’s a far more conventional and safer movie than it should be. It isn’t that it isn’t bold or offensive enough, it’s just that it feels like those individual jokes exist to blur the rather standard outline of a tried-and-tested comedy formula. It’s often hilarious, it’s well put together and it takes no prisoners; I just wish it were a little bit smarter.