Coming into The Dictator, I had the very real fear that I was about to become witness to the demise of one of the best new comedic minds in film. Since his debut on Da Ali G Show, Sacha Baron Cohen has made a career of playing silly, over-the-top characters thrust into everyday life, but I and many audience members have been wondering how long Cohen can keep this up. Luckily, we seem not to have an Eddie Murphy-sized downfall on our hands, but rather a continuation of Cohen’s success that promises a long career of strange public antics and oddball comedy.
In The Dictator, Cohen portrays a caricature of a Middle Eastern dictator named Admiral General Aladeen who is unceremoniously stripped of his identity and spends the latter half of the film trying to get back what he has lost. Unsurprisingly, as Aladeen is shaved of his magnificent beard and immersed in the culture of ordinary men and (gasp!) women, he begins to recant the horrible things he’s done as a ruler. This transformation is a bit contrived, but Cohen’s scriptwriting credit shines through constantly, every moment that approaches any sort of serious emotional weight is smartly undercut shortly thereafter by some utterly ludicrous gag.
The Dictator marks Cohen’s first attempt at a non-Borat/Ali G/Brüno-style film. Save perhaps for some improvised dialogue and conversations in what we can only assume is the national language of Aladeen’s home country of Wadiya, the film’s plot is entirely scripted. While I did find the vérité of his previous films a refreshing change from the normal schlock churned out by Hollywood these days, I am personally glad to see that Cohen’s humor translates directly into a more standard film structure. And because the environment is now more controlled, Cohen and his director Larry Charles are able to perform more ludicrous stunts and execute more over-the-top gags made possible via movie magic.
The film does suffer a bit from pacing issues. The third act lags as Aladeen deals with internal conflict, but the downtime isn’t too noticeable and before you can really identify the problem, the laughs have picked back up once again to finish off the film. If there was one thing The Dictator had going for it, it was its laughs-per-minute which covered up almost every inconsistency or issue.
Indeed, the racial, religious, and ethnic humor successfully hits a Louis CK-sweet spot of comedy for the majority of the film. Having said that, one or two bits that are in no way related to the aforementioned topics really do cross over from the realm of funny to that of creepy and wrong, as evidenced by the accompanying near-dead silence in my particular theater. I won’t reveal these gags here, but I feel it is worth mentioning that even an audience prepared to see a Sacha Baron Cohen film has a line that should probably not be stepped over.
Cohen’s Aladeen is an interesting character, both because of how he is portrayed in the film, and because of how the media has received him. Just the other day, I heard a piece on the radio on whether Cohen was wrong to continually portray Middle Easterners, and particularly Arabs, in such a negative light. I find this accusation a bit ironic at this point, especially considering the fact that Admiral General Aladeen, aside from being one of the most ridiculous characters to hit the silver screen, is much more a hybrid of Iran’s president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and North Korea’s late dictator, Kim Jong Il, than he is of any Arab leaders.
More than that, I’m sure there is some underlying message is buried in the silliness of The Dictator. The film takes some lengths to lampoon everything from backwards religious fundamentalism to the far-left ideologies of liberalism, giving it depth only rarely explored in comedies. However, as much as I wanted it to, I don’t know how well it came across given the extraordinary goofiness of the plot.
Starring alongside Cohen is Anna Faris, who does her typical Anna Farris thing as Pioneer Valley girl Zoey. Zoey ultimately functions as a passable love interest for Aladeen, but I personally loved the first few interactions she had with Cohen as their polar opposite world views clashed. This may be because I went to school in the Pioneer Valley as well and spent much of my time around people like her, but regardless, their scenes together really worked for me.
In the end, this is the Cambridge-educated Cohen doing what he does best: lampooning those he finds abhorrent through pure comic mischief to the delight of fans everywhere. The Dictator is one of the funniest films that I have seen all year; I admit that I laughed more for this film than I did at 21 Jump Street or even Men in Black III, though I don’t necessarily think The Dictator is a superior film. If you are a fan of the very bluest comedy that also tackles many contemporary sociopolitical issues, then you might just enjoy The Dictator, too.
Verdict: Movie Win
A Note on Fake Countries – Perhaps it made his character more believable when Cohen decided to assign Kazakhstan as Borat’s homeland – but it always bothered me that he didn’t just make up some country instead since the satire was just as evident either way. What did Kazakhstan ever do to him? Thankfully, Cohen wisely chose to fabricate the North African nation of Wadiya for The Dictator, and I think the film is better for it.
A Note on the Soundtrack – The soundtrack in The Dictator is surprisingly awesome. From Arabic (or pseudo-Arabic?) versions of Let’s Get it On and Everybody Hurts to a rap song about Admiral General Aladeen, the film makes an unexpectedly strong musical showing.
A Note on Biting Political Satires – If you haven’t seen them, Christopher Morris’s Four Lions or Armando Iannucci’s In the Loop approach many of the same materials as The Dictator, but to even greater effect. Both are highly recommended.
A Note on Cameos – I often dismiss pop culture cameos as cheap attempts at comedy or celebrity, but there is one late-movie appearance that is extremely surprising and very welcome; I won’t spoil it, but it definitely gave the film a few extra points in my book.