Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Coming to America: THE DICTATOR

In The Dictator, co-writer and star Sacha Baron Cohen gives himself a massive satirical target. How easy is it to make fun of the excesses and egregious views of a megalomaniacal tyrant? His dictator character is General Aladeen, the oppressive ruler of the fictional country of Wadiya. He’s presented as a wealthy, fatuous, violent, misogynistic racist. But, you know, the funny kind. The funniest thing about the movie is how it manages to slip around the target and just about miss it completely simply through the nature of the way the movie is structured. For this conceit to work, Cohen needs to have us either rooting for the downfall of Aladeen or hoping he learns the error of his ways. That’s not exactly what Cohen, collaborating for the third time with director Larry Charles, has in mind here. They want to use the fictional horrible dictator to critique our own society. And they get there, eventually, for one pretty good scene, but they sacrifice the potential for a more successful comedy in the process.

The plot of the movie concerns the dictator’s trip to America to address the United Nations. Once there, right-hand-man Tamir (Ben Kingsley) hires a racist private security guard (John C. Reilly, whose small role is presented almost in full in the trailer) to take the dictator out. Once out of the way, he can be replaced with a stupid lookalike (also Cohen) who will sign an agreement to democratize Wadiya and hand over its oilfields to multinational oil corporations. That’s a funny premise, but instead of running with that, following the innocent doppelganger (a la Chaplin’s great, gutsy 1940 send-up The Great Dictator) and the shadowy backroom deals Kingsley makes with American companies – he essentially sells the country away from one uncaring overlord to another – the film thinks it’s far funnier to follow General Aladeen. He escapes assassination, but ends up beardless and thus (apparently) unrecognizable on the streets of New York.

Cohen gives the character a lot of corrosive satiric energy, but he’s used in a series of broad jokes and sequences that crisscross the line between merely tasteless and out-and-out offensive with staggering frequency. Aladeen is constantly making awful comments about women and minorities, casually referencing rape (not funny at all) and terrorism (sometimes funny), and generally behaving entitled and rude to everyone he meets. This can be a good source of humor. Indeed it is in a very funny scene on a helicopter tour in which he’s talking in the Wadiyan language about his new 2012 model Porsche 911 and scares a couple of tourists. But the entire thrust of the plot is to see him back in power. It’s built into the very core of it all; that’s his entire goal in the film. He schemes with an expatriate Wadiyan nuclear scientist (Jason Mantzoukas) to interrupt Ben Kingsley’s scheme and return his homeland to its proper oppression under his rule.

Aladeen doesn’t learn any lessons along the way, unless you count the love, or something like it, he grows to feel for the earnest fair-trade grocer played by a strangely muted Anna Faris in an unconvincing and distracting subplot. He remains an unrepentantly nasty guy, up to his old tricks of intimidation and casual cruelty, which would be fine if the film weren’t intent on softening him (like with that pesky would-be romance) and losing focus with bizarre digressions of the kind you’d think a savage 83-minute satire wouldn’t need. One surreal gag starts with a grocery-shopper giving birth in the store when the owner asks Aladeen to help. He tries to text his Wadiyan co-conspirator during the birthing and ends up with his cell phone up inside the poor woman. This is just mind-bogglingly unfunny and way off topic. It’s this and moments like this that causes the movie to go minutes on end without a single laugh in sight. And when a movie is so short, these laughless stretches really add up quickly.

It’s just that Aladeen is hard to care about, unlike the endearing qualities that balance out the tone in his previous starring roles. In Cohen’s early film efforts in gonzo comedies Borat and Bruno (also directed by Larry Charles) he fearlessly inhabited deliberately irritating characters from his Ali G HBO series, one a brusque, exaggeratedly prejudiced reporter from Kazakhstan and the other a clueless, vain, gay, Austrian, would-be celebrity fashionista. In each case, he set out across America, causing immediate culture-clash friction by sending out these outlandish characters to interact with real people. Those films contain healthy doses of potent cultural satire, and have plenty of moments that just feel miscalculated, but on some fundamental level, seeing people react so oddly or so blatantly discriminatory towards these characters puts us on their side. The Dictator is almost entirely miscalculation. I just couldn’t care about Aladeen getting his throne back, even at a grating satiric level, and if the film’s plotting is to work, it hinges to some extent on just such investment on the audience’s part. (What about that poor lookalike? He’s pretty funny, but glimpsed in only two or three scenes.)

Where the film’s satire really lands is in a climactic speech in which General Aladeen extols the virtues of a dictatorship. He says that under that form of government all wealth can be concentrated in the top 1%, you can give your buddies tax breaks, the media can appear free but really be controlled by a few powerful men and their families, you can fill your jails with predominantly one race and no one even cares, and etcetera. It’s a powerful left-hook of a political statement, very strong, very funny, and very cynical. But it’s a sharpness that comes too little too late in a movie that has spent a considerable portion of its run time messing around with gross-out gags and purposefully offensive material that just doesn’t add up. It keeps all its most interesting material on the sidelines where it’s least useful to making this an enjoyable experience. It’s a blown opportunity, a satire that aims for such a big target it’s not just disappointing, it’s downright depressing that Cohen largely missed.


  1. I didn't laugh every bone in my body off but I can say that I had a couple of really good laughs here and there, mainly because Cohen is able to go the distance for any joke even though I wish this wasn't all scripted. Good review.

  2. Nice review, I agree completely. The biggest issue is that Cohen has tried to script the same sort of comedy that made Borat work which, of course, is impossible because the reason Bruno and Borat were so funny is because they weren't scripted.