Sacha Baron Cohen’s stranger-in-a-strange-land movies are easily among the better comedies of the aughts. Managing to use personalities that somehow exceed their stereotypes, both Borat and Bruno created films that managed to undercut the more ridiculous aspects of their protagonists to build really smart, often fearless examinations of just how funny normal people are through the eyes of a stranger. Beyond their controversy and famous stunt-roles, they were both really warm movies about poking fun at our own ridiculousness.
The Dictator is Cohen’s latest, staring the writer/actor in another foreigner role: the fictional despot Admiral General Aladeen, leader of the north African country of Wadiya, a stand in for any number of countries that have been the focus of real geopolitical attention in the past decade. Wadiya is something of a playboy dictator, a manchild who executes at whim and oppresses without a care in the world, concerned mostly with the array of American stars he can afford to pay to sleep with.
He’s also fiercely nationalist, refusing to sell his oil to foreign interests, much to the chagrin of his second-in-command Tamir, played by Ben Kingsley once again cashing his foreign bad guy paycheck. Kingsley has a plan: replace Aladeen with a body double he can control, and use the body double to strongarm the country through a democracy that will allow him to grow rich on Wadiya’s resources. Aladeen (heading to New York to speak at the UN) gets kidnapped and shaven and manages to escape into a world that doesn’t believe him, left to watch as his country gets usurped on national television.
If this sounds a little convoluted that’s because it is. The Dictator abandons the semi-documentary structure of Cohen’s prior works in favor of a fully fictional tale, and manages to gain little more than a really good soundtrack (no, really, it’s really good). It adopts the Prince and the Pauper style construction of another movie with Dictator in the title (hint: Chaplin’s The Great Dictator) to do so, but I’d rather not belabor the comparisons. Putting this movie up against that one seems unavoidable, but it’s horribly unfair. The Dictator never aspires to the kind of angry social conscience that The Great Dictator cried out with. And that’s in large part its entire problem.The Dictator is made by a fairly funny comedian with great comic timing, but it ends up being a deeply hollow experience for all its laughs.
A lot of that is in the very form the movie takes. Removing the ‘crazy bigot interviews random unaware folks’ is probably necessary at this point (who could still be fooled? how many times does Cohen want to be sued?) but really hurts the movie. The genius of movies like Borat and Bruno is that beyond their obvious stereotypes and cultural friction they were really honest looks at how people act when confronted with all of the stereotypes and assumptions those characters represent. The magic isn’t that Borat or Bruno caused scenes, it’s that despite how little we often think of other people most people when confronted with this strangeness often respond like decent human beings. There’s a real heart to those movies when they get away from the big stunts, of folks just being honest folks, that’s heartening in a time when most of our entertainment is deeply cynical about our culture, and only grows more so the more ‘common man’ it gets.
Removing that really hurts the heart of the movie. In fact, there’s really only one scene that plays out in that way, with Aladeen and his cohort Nadal (Jason Mantzoukas, more on him later) taking an airplane ride and talking in their native tongue, saying things that raise the alarm of the middle aged, heavy set midwestern couple they’re riding with. It lands Aladeen and Nadal in jail, and for all its mistaken identity humor manages to be the exact lazy ‘hey aren’t Americans dumb?’ humor that Cohen’s prior works were smart to mostly counterbalance with genuine human moments. It also manages to be a really lazy joke, the kind of thing that wouldn’t have felt edgy in 2003, and in 2012 seems positively ancient. In fact, almost all the jokes are the sort of post-9/11 post-Iraq lampoons of US policy and easy snipes at Middle Eastern culture that seem really old and really boring in today’s world. It all seems really safe, and even the final moments which try to make some sort of commentary on Aladeen’s experiences in the US and his views on the differences between democracy and dictatorship end up sounding like the petulant 'America is bought and paid for' screeds of that relative you wish you could unfriend on facebook more than any sort of great comedy or socially relevant subtext.
This is a problem with the entire movie, honestly. Aladeen isn’t a character in the same way Borat or Bruno were. You get the sense that Aladeen is a character written around the need for gags, and so he’s whatever the movie calls for him to be at any given time. He’s fiercely nationalistic one minute, then acclimating to New York life the next. He’s a murdering rapist in one scene, and in another we learn that he’s never done anything bad. It’s very contradictory, and turns him into more of a cartoon that struts from bit to bit instead of a person (however ridiculous) we go on a journey with. Borat espeically was a character that was heavily improvised and workshopped from Cohen’s years on Da Ali G Show, but Aladeen instead feels like a first time skit one-off. In fact, the incoherent way Aladeen behaves from scene to scene seems a lot like a skit-to-film movie, specifically the array of mostly bad SNL movies made in the 90s. Characters who barely worked in 3 minutes were expected to handle 90 minute narratives, and the results were almost always dreadful.
The Dictator isn’t quite that bad, mostly because Cohen is a better comedian than most of those folks, but it gets close. For all of his travels and the things he’s put through, he never really changes that much. Whenever there’s a moment requiring a comedic beat, it’s almost always a reliance upon one of the obvious gags set up in the first five minutes of the movie. There just isn’t a lot of Aladeen to carry the film. For all his buffooning, the character is more exhausting than endearing. Much of the humor, then, revolves around the two people who react to him: Nadal, played by Mantzoukas as a long-suffering nuclear engineer who fled the country only to become an Apple store genius who longs for legitimacy; and Zoey, played by Anna Faris, who manages to be every hippie-vegan-protester-liberal stereotype but manages to somehow make it all human through Faris’ sheer determination to not be a cardboard love interest. She becomes the gateway by which Aladeen experiences New York, and she’s by far the most nuanced character, managing to be far more than just the straight man role she’s forced into.
When the sidekicks outshine the star, you know you’ve got problems, especially when they don’t do it through being real scene-stealers like the producer character in Borat. The Dictator, then, manages to mostly stand out by being a prime example of diminishing returns. This is the third time Cohen’s dipped into this well, and each time the results are less impressive. The Dictator smacks of the kind of desperation I really hope Cohen isn’t feeling as a creative force, because he still obviously has talent, he just doesn’t seem to quite know what form to put it into now that his first, most successful gimmick has run its course.
Trailer: The Dictator
Sasha Baron Cohen stars in a movie based on a novel by Saddam Hussein! Remember when Kardashian jokes were in? ...yeah?
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