Truth to tell—and I know it’s not a fair line of criticism–but Sacha Baron Cohen’s new farce, “The Dictator,” would have made a wonderful short.
Though the running time is extremely brief (only 83 minutes), the comedy runs out of energy (and ideas) after the first half. That said, Baron Cohen is a shrewd performer, and realizing the limitations of his episodic material, he turns the last chapters of the film into a culture-clash romantic comedy.
Most people admired “Borat,” and I was one of the few who liked (in moderation) “Bruno,” spoofs that targeted some timely issues and characters in a very funny, often hilarious way. But with those two features, Baron Cohen pretty much exhausted the genre that he had helped to reinvent. The question among cinephiles was which direction would he go?
In Scorsese’s Oscar-winning fable “Hugo,” Baron Cohen was a member of the supporting cast, a trouper of a large ensemble, but honestly, he is such an eccentric and iconic performer that no matter what he wears, says, or does, he calls attention to himself.
In his respect, he follows in the footsteps of another brilliant British comedian, Peter Sellers, who after the “Pink Panther” movies was forever associated with the character of Inspector Clouzot. Sellers was also a self-contained star no matter in what story context he was placed.
Baron Cohen is more politically alert than Peter Sellers and he draws inspiration for his sight gags, political barbs, and intellectual riffs from the socio-political reality that surrounds him. He also has the advantage of conceiving and/or co-writing his own material, which gives him greater freedom and measure of control over his films. While it’s possible to imagine the “Pink Panther” series without Sellers, it’s impossible to think of “Borat” or “Bruno” without Baron Cohen’s active participation. Those roles, if you could call them roles, were tailor-made to his specifications.
And now we see “The Dictator,” a funny if more conventional comedy that doesn’t bear a particularly alluring title. On the one hand, Baron Cohen wants to make sure that no mistakes are made in relating to his movie as a tribute to Chaplin’s famous 1940 feature, “The Great Dictator.” Rest assured, it is not homage to Chaplin or to any other comedy.
Structurally, “The Dictator” is Baron Cohen’s most mainstream (and least offbeat or cool) film, in the sense that it has a straightforward narrative that walks a fine line between being high-brow, middle-brow, and low-brow. In some sequences, Baron Cohen blends admirably these various sensibilities. Sharply uneven, the movie contains a whole range of observations, from the simple and obvious to the radical and shocking, with vulgar bathroom humor often thrown in for the teenage crowd.
Baron Cohen plays General Admiral Haffaz Aladeen, a corrupt and greedy dictator, who risks his life—and is proud to do so–to ensure that democracy will never come to the country he oppresses,
The country is the isolated but rich (OIL) North African state of Wadiya, which has been ruled by the anti-West (read: anti-American) Aladeen since he was six. How com so young? Aladeen was named Supreme Leader after the death of his father, killed in a hunting accident, or to be more specific, hit by no less than 97 stray bullets and a hand grenade. It’s pretty much a family affair: Since his ascension to power, Aladeen has always trusted his advisor, Uncle Tamir (Ben Kingsley, in top form), who serves as Head of the Secret Police, Chief of Security, and most important of all, Procurer or Women.
Things change, when the Western world suddenly begins to probe into Wadiyan affairs. Moreover, the United Nations has repeatedly sanctioned the country over the last decade, which makes the Dictator more determined not to let a Security Council inspector into his secret weapons facility.
However, after an assassination attempt takes the life of yet another ringer for the Supreme Leader, Tamir convinces Aladeen to go to New York to address the United Nations. Thus, General Aladeen, Tamir and their entourage arrive in New York, but it’s not a particularly good time as the city is populated with exiled Wadiyans, who only wish to see their country freed from Aladeen’s despotic rule.
The various culture clashes provide the thematic links to Baron Cohen’s former works, which also dealt with conflicts and collisions along geopolitical lines. Bewildered by the new and bizarre milieu of New York, Aladeen is particularly shocked by the high fees he has to pay for daily uses of wi-fi.
In some silly and outrageous plot points, borrowing on such honored traditions as “new” and “mistaken” identities, some by choice, other by force, Aladeen is stripped of power by his own men; in fact his own family.
Language and sociolinguistics have always played a crucial role in Baron Cohen’s pictures, both as ideological weapons and as source of humor. There are references to HIV positive and negative, the accuracy of Yiddish as a colorful dialect, sharp observations about the subtle differences between labeling the U.S. an autocracy and democracy, and an assortment of witty political barbs.
For example, in one of his speeches, Aladeen states: “In Wadiya, there are no dissidents. The opinion poll says 112% of the population adores me, and 14% are indifferent. There are no dissidents, there are no protestors in my country. They are all foreign terrorist gangs.” In another poignant and funny speech, Aladeen pleads the Americans to follow in his country’s footsteps, as, after all, it won’t take many drastic or dramatic measures to change its dominant ideology and mores.
The humor is deliberately broad—and occasionally gross—though not as vulgar as some critics (not me) found the contents of “Bruno.” Thus, how do you indoctrinate a non-Western to practice and enjoys masturbation. Trust Baron Cohen that he will show you how and where to do that.
There is nice chemistry between Baron Cohen and Faris, who at first look like a variation on the Odd Couple, physically as well as culturally. And if memory serves, it’s the first Baron Cohen’s movie in which a woman serves as foil, counterpart, and partner.
The direction by Larry Charles, in his third collaboration with Sacha Baron Cohen, is serviceable for this kind of comedy, which operates on several different levels, making sure that each group of the star’s growing fan base will be pleased.
Overall, Baron Cohen seems to have taken the criticisms of “Bruno” to heart, and so he plays it rather “safe” here. As a comedian, it’s a tough act to follow, when you begin on such high, edgy, risqué, cool, and subtle notes as he did in his TV show and then in “Borat.”
But, broad as some of the gags, barbs, and allusions are, they are still executed expertly by an ultra-bright actor who is blessed with sharp intelligence, political savvy, and comedic timing, qualities that are very much missed these days from mainstream (and indie) American comedies.
Camera, Lawrence Sher.
Editors, Greg Hayden, Eric Kissack.
Music, Erran Baron Cohen.
Production designer, Victor Kempster.
Supervising art director, Greg Berry
Art directors, Julian Laverdiere, Nicholas Lundy;
set decorator, Debra Schutt; costume designer, Jeffrey Kurland
Sound, William Sarokin; supervising sound editor, Andrew DeCristofaro;
Re-recording mixers, Andy Koyama, Beau Borders; stunt coordinator, Alex Daniels; special effects coordinators, Drew Jiritano, Fred Buchholz; visual effects supervisor, Eric J. Robertson; visual effects, Luma Pictures, Shade VFX, Level 256, Look Effects, Factory VFX, Framestore.
MPAA Rating: R.
Running time: 83 Minutes.