Sacha Baron Cohen is a funny man, although you wouldn’t necessarily know it from his movies. Borat and Brüno are varying levels of excruciating, but then you watch him in interviews and he’s charming and surprisingly dry, given that the humour in the two aforementioned films, as well as his breakout character Ali G, is pretty broad.
Regardless of the humour in his movies and if it appeals to you or not, I do think he’s a good performer; you can’t deny he commits himself to his roles, and even in his other appearances (Sweeney Todd, Madagascar) he’s able to bring a certain vitality to the character; I have high hopes for his Thénardier in the upcoming Les Misérables.
Also, although I laughed precisely once through the entire movie’s run, I have to credit Borat for actually being quite effective satire. Not necessarily good, but it is effective. The scene where Borat espouses his increasingly-bloodthirsty intentions regarding the “infidels” to an increasingly-appreciative crowd of rednecks is not only spot-on, but genuinely disturbing, and I find it amusing that most of the people who sued Cohen for “misrepresenting” them in the film are essentially people who did things they’re embarrassed were caught on film. There’s small moments of intelligence, just masked by a painfully unfunny movie.
So, with that in mind, I had to weigh up two sides in watching The Dictator – part of me knows that he’s able to write some good moments, but I also expect his stuff to in no way appeal to me. I’m glad to say that I kept an open mind, and that this film pretty much falls in the middle.
The plot follows Admiral General Haffaz Aladeen (Cohen) and his gleefully-oppressive rule over the small North African nation of Wadiya. When Wadiya absolutely-definitely-in-no-way starts amassing nuclear weapons, the UN put pressure on Aladeen to allow their weapons inspectors in to investigate, and he reluctantly agrees to travel to New York City to address them.
Once stateside, Aladeen’s treacherous uncle Tamir (what-the-hell-are-you-doing-here? Ben Kingsley (oh, that’s right…Bloodrayne)) has Aladeen replaced by a body double, and the real dictator shaved and left in the city unrecognisable. Tamir is planning on democratising Wadiya to allow him to sell the vast oil reserves to foreign interests.
Aladeen, now disempowered and unrecognisable, begins his attempt to get back in control before the new constitution is signed in before the UN, with the help of Nadal (Jason Mantzoukas), an old friend he thought he had executed. He also meets Zoey (Anna Farris) a granola-girl, left-wing activist who runs a food store which is a “vegan-feminist-non-profit cooperative operating within an anti-racist anti-oppressive framework for people of all or no genders”.
And from here, the movie tries to do too much and does not enough of any of it. There are some perfectly plottable pitches to the film – overthrown-dictator tries to get back in power with the help of his friend; overthrown dictator finds love in a new lifestyle; overthrown dictator runs around making offensive jokes.
I’m glad the last one isnt’t the only thing on offer in the movie – this is a proper narrative as opposed to the mockumentary style of Borat and Brüno, but like those two films, The Dictator becomes a case of intelligence hidden amidst banality. The offensive jokes lose their edge in a scripted-story like this, because you aren’t associating with it actually being said to real people whose reactions then make up mockumentary. It also doesn’t fully devote itself to its story, and as such feels a bit undercooked.
What the movie does offer hints at, and would have made a good premise, is the fact that as a life-long dictator, Aladeen has no idea how the real world works, and a fish-out-of-water with the occasional joke thrown in would’ve made a much stronger film.
In comparison with Ali G, Borat and Brüno, the movie itself provides a perfect quote as a summation:
“It’s not amazing, it’s just a little less shit.”
The biggest problem with the movie, is that in focussing on the power of dictatorships, and using that to reflect on socio-political affairs on a global scale, the movie already seems a bit dated. If this had come out 5 years ago, it would’ve been incredibly topical, but it already seems like most of these jokes and observations have been made before and better.
The film’s best moment is a speech delivered towards the end of the film – it is sharp and satirical, and immediately attacks America’s foreign and domestic policies, and it does it with a wit that’s not so much “biting” as it is “how have you not realised this yet?”. Unfortunately, it comes at the end of a relatively pedestrian film.
This is not a horribly bad movie – certainly not as bad as I was expecting it to be based on Sacha Baron Cohen’s earlier efforts. It’s not great either, and I’ll have no need to ever see it again, but if you like an easy comedy, then I suppose this is OK.
The problem is that it settles for offensive humour without having any relevance; simply saying offensive things is not funny, it has to be tied to a situation that means that the decision to be offensive is the funnier approach. Without understanding this, the movie has a lot of misfiring on the comedy front; things that 14-year-old boys will laugh at, but the rest of us just wait for something better to be delivered. That said, the fantastic dig at the stupidity of Crocs was very welcome.
It’s worth seeing for the back-and-forths between Aladeen and Nadal – including a pretty spectacular mistranslation onboard a helicopter (although this films like a moment they wish they could’ve had happen in filming one of the mockumentaries).
If you’re an Anna Faris fan she’s on usual form here, nothing spectacular or unspectacular; if you liked Borat and Brüno then you’ll probably like this too. And Ben Kingsley, though bizarrely cast, is adequate enough.
Ultimately though, it’s a pretty forgettable experience; it’d be nice to see Sacha Baron Cohen put his talents towards something with its brows set a little higher.