[31 August 2012]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Filmmaking is not a truly ‘collaborative’ process. One person can make all the difference. Oh sure, the actors all bring something, and the screenwriters add in the necessary narrative drive and character arcs. The behind the lens crew create the worlds, populate them with appropriate sets and costumes, and deliver the dynamic that will come to make the movie’s look. Even the director (sometimes a visionary, oft times a mere journeymen) can guide the project toward its proper ends. Still, one voice can come along and truly ‘dictate’ everything. Said spokesman can be a studio suit, a selection of damning focus group questionnaires, or in the case of the latest installment in ambush/insult comedy from Britain’s leading agent provocateur, a pop phenom.
After taking the planet by storm with his fake documentary assaults (Borat, and Bruno), the celebrated Sasha Baron Cohen has decided to go the standard storied laugher route. Unlike his previous collaborations with Larry Charles, his latest collection of non-PC gags, The Dictator (now out on Blu-ray and DVD), uses a typical fish out of water narrative to offer up sharp political satire, slams against the pro-Peace vegan activist rabble, and the standard selection of penis, vagina, and/or other bodily fluids/function jokes. When it initially hit theaters early in the Summer of 2012, many in the Cohen fan camp were disappointed. They hoped to see more of the measured madman making Jane and Joe Sixpack look beyond stupid.
Instead, they got a scattered yet still very viable class in comedy. Cohen uses every aspect of the genre at his disposal to tell the story of Admiral General Aladeen 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 becomes 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 nuclear scientist from his homeland (Jason Mantzoukas), he will thwart his uncle’s plans, which involve licensing out the country’s rich oil supplies to the highest bidder. Naturally, things don’t go quite as planned.
Cohen clearly believes in the “all or nothing” approach to humor. We get slapstick, scatology, entendres, ripped from the headlines observations, stereotyping, racial profiling, bad taste, brilliance, and above all, a true portrait of power gone gonzo…and goofy…and giddy. This is especially true in the new unrated and uncensored version you find on home video (the theatrical cut is also available on the same disc). Sequences that felt rushed before are now extended, giving them more play and import, as when an opening news report on Aladeen looks over his complicated, controversial life.
We also get an extended bit with a large breasted assassin, much more of the over the top birth sequence, and more Nuclear Nadal (Mr. Mantzoukas almost steals the film from Cohen). As said before, with this revamp, the film feels a bit more languid, less haphazard and hurried. This is a good thing, since it allows our star to explore more of his character’s changing mindset and telling targets.
But there is more here than a bully learning his lesson. Cohen clearly wants 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.
As mentioned throughout this review, his co-stars certainly help. Mantzoukas is indeed 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. Also, be on the lookout for a couple of clever cameos. The trailer gave one away, while another is a smile-inducing shocker.
Perhaps the best thing about The Dictator, however, 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 his 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. He is truly the singular voice behind his anarchic comic approach.