[11 May 2012]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Throughout his relatively short career as an international funny man, British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen has been known for his “ambush” approach to wit. From Borat to Ali G, fey fashionista Bruno to whatever else comes out of his crazy head, he has relied on the unsuspecting nature of his various real-life victims to fetter out laughs. Now, he’s decided to dump the faux documentary style of his previous films to make The Dictator, a splashy Summer movie in which a despot with a desire to rule the world (or at the very least, destroy Israel) finds himself a fish out of water in New York City. While a tad too truncated in its narrative, it proves that Cohen doesn’t need the “gotcha” to get people to laugh. He is genuinely funny no matter the setting.
Admiral General Aladeen (Cohen) is the power-mad ruler of the tiny African nation of Wadiya. A harsh tyrant with a quick temper and a backward way towards treating his people, he is currently under investigation by the UN for war crimes as well as a secret nuclear arms program. At the behest of the world and the advice of his loyal uncle (Ben Kingsley) - the rightful heir to the throne, by the way - he plans a trip to Manhattan to address the charges. Once there, he is part of a plot to overthrow and kill him. Soon, sans his signature beard, Aladeen in adrift in Manhattan, unable to survive without his collection of servants and Yes Men. Running into an activist health food store owner (Anna Faris) who wants Wadiya punished, he finds work…and a way to get revenge. With the help of an exiled dissident scientist from his homeland (Jason Mantzoukas), he will find a way to thwart his uncle’s plans.
At its core, The Dictator is a plausible, stranger in a strange land premise taken to ridiculous heights by Cohen and his chief collaborator, director Larry Charles. The two have been together since a certain Kazakhstani reporter became a global phenomenon and their current comfort level shows. Cohen is capable of great things, and within the dynamic set-up in this film, the man behind the lens simply lets him loose. There are several hilarious sequences in this film, from the opening montage meant to explain who Aladeen is to an on point deconstruction of the whole New Age/Whole Earth movement circa 2012. Yes, there are still gross out gags, almost all revolving around bodily fluids/parts and the brandishing of same, but there are set within a farcical fairytale that reduces terrorism to a trick and political unrest to a well-practiced parlor game.
Don’t be mistaken, however. There is also a lot of bite, especially within Cohen’s desire to explore the connection between fascism and the current state of the Western world. He takes down China as well as other multinational controlled countries. Elsewhere, during a last act press conference, Aladeen satirizes the present state of the US in such a ballsy manner that you’ll hardly miss the message. He also attacks that most sacred of cows, 9/11, in a similarly sly fashion. Without going directly into the policies within the Middle East, The Dictator also provides a glimpse into the subtextual stakes involved. Oil is briefly mentioned, as is a hatred of a certain Jewish State. Yet instead of milking the obvious, Cohen goes for outside the box targets, and almost always hits his mark.
His co-stars certainly help. As the nuclear researcher “murdered” by Aladeen’s flunkies, Jason Mantzoukas is a revelation. Instead of playing an Andy Kaufman like level of lost foreigner, he is articulate, intelligent, confrontational, and always ready to tear down his former boss’s bravado. With a single line reading - or word (“Really?”) he reduces the despot into the weak-willed wannabe he truly is. Faris is also fascinating as the common hairy armpitted Earth girl cliche. Her performance is so open and honest that we really don’t mind that Cohen and company are mocking her organic obviousness at every turn. We expect body image and grooming jokes. The Dictator takes this material to truly dizzying heights.
As you can probably guess, this is a very un-PC film. Cohen doesn’t believe in taboos. Instead, he believes in using everything and anything to get people to laugh. This comes through loud and clear during a scene where a woman goes into labor while in Faris’ store. From the blatant jokes about where babies comes from (and the mangled man-handling of same) to the stereotyping of gender bias within many Third World countries, Cohen and company continuously hit home runs. On the other hand, there is also a hurried feeling to the humor, as if the comedian can’t wait to get to the next set-up and punchline.
Indeed, this sense of being rushed undermines some of The Dictator‘s effectiveness. We want many of these jokes to sink in and sit with us, to make their point before passing the torch to another collection of bits. We could use more time in Wadiya, more insight into the way in which Cohen sees the oppression and backwards nature of the Middle East. We could also spend hours in Faris’ store. It’s like every Woody Allen joke from the ‘70s manifested in a contemporary fair trade, pro-PETA conceit. Since he takes on everyone and everything with the same churlish glee, the attacks seem strangely fair. The wounds may be deep, but everyone is similarly sliced up.
Perhaps the best thing about The Dictator is the ditching of the whole ‘fiction in the real world’ mentality. We don’t have to sit back, uncomfortable, as unwilling participants in Cohen’s comedy make fools of themselves. Instead of aiming for the prejudice or stupidity of its unsuspecting marks, this movie goes back to the typical film comedy formula, and comes up a winner. If you want to see more of what made Cohen a household name initially, The Dictator will disappoint you. If you want to see where his career may be going in the future, this fine, funny entertainment will offer up some hilarious hints.