Contemporary mainstream cinema offers no better illustration of a Pyrrhic triumph than 2006’s Borat, one of the key films early in the current wave of R-rated comedies, and the reason that you and I know the name Sacha Baron Cohen. For this film found the British comedian finding immense success using the shtick that he’d been carefully nurturing for more than a half-decade after the creation of his TV series Da Ali G Show – ambush comedy in which Cohen played a transparent cartoon against real-life people who allow themselves to be gulled into taking him seriously – and then, exactly because that success raised his profile so very high, it became impossible for him to continue doing what he did so very well, given that anonymity was a key component of the whole thing (it is for this reason that Ali G did not have a second season in the UK).
And so it is that this very funny man (I’ll still throw down for Borat as being one of the few great movie comedies of the 21st Century) has spent all of his fame wandering in the wildenrness, looking for something to do with his talent. 2009’s Brüno was the same trick played to infinitely less effect; and now The Dictator finds Cohen plumbing the same comic territory (satire of American self-satisfaction spiked with foul language, and racist and sexist jabs so nasty but delivered with so much conviction that it’s hard to say if we’re meant to laugh with or at the speaker, or if it’s supposed to be so shocking that laughter isn’t even possible), but this time working with a fully-developed script and other actors, not people on the street – a normal movie, in other words, only with a Cohen character at the center of it (let us choose to ignore the ineffective stunt-marketing Cohen has been feebly working for some months, appearing as his new character in real-world situations). The results are… minor. It’s a more consistently amusing and effective and intelligent film than Brüno, anyway, though if this is what passes for comic genius nowadays, it might be better if we give up on the genre and stick to tragedy and action from here on out. Or let us put it this way: it is pleasing that Cohen, his co-writers, and director Larry Charles have seen fit to make a comedy that clocks in under 90 minutes, but even then The Dictator has more running time than it has ideas to fill it.
Cohen’s newest character is Admiral General Aladeen, the dictator of the North African nation of Wadiya, nestled just east of Sudan along the Red Sea. Aladeen is a composite of several tof the tin-pot military dictators who’ve shown up in the news in the last decade and change, though most of his DNA comes from Saddam Hussein and his two sons. The plot of the film – sketchy and rushed in the context of every film ever, but positively decadent next to the episodic travelogues of the star’s previous two vehicles – finds Aladeen journeying to New York in order to address the United Nations’ concerns about his obviously belligerent plans to develop nuclear weaponry; once in the U.S., he is betrayed by his second-in-command, Tamir (Ben Kingsley), who has been leading the Wadiyan Resistance in secret, though not for moral reasons: he intends to sell the country like a fat, oil-laden whore to any multinational energy company with enough billions. Aladeen, robbed of the thick beard that is his primary identifying feature, is now stuck wandering the city, ultimately falling in with hardcore pro-everything activist Zoey (Anna Faris), who assumes him to be a Wadiyan refugee; he also stumbles across his former head nuclear scientist, Nadal (Jason Mantzoukias), one of dozens of people Aladeen ordered executed who were spared by a rebel executioner, and from here he plans to retake his country before Tamir and an unbelievably idiotic body double are able to turn it into a fake democracy, ready for Western pillaging.
A few thoughts present themselves: first, despite how apparently the movie wants to be regarded as a raunchy, 21st Century The Great Dictator, the film in which Charles Chaplin and Jack Oakie played such inspired parodies of Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini, there’s no way for the film to breathe as much as a satire as it always seems that it wants to for the straightforward reason that Aladeen isn’t a “real” dictator. That is to say, he has no real-world analogue: it’s even mentioned in dialogue that most of his peers are dead or otherwise out of power, and it’s quite impossible to say that Wadiya stands in for Iran, the only obvious target for any such satire. Meaning that Aladeen is “just” a character in a comedy, and this robs the film of a good deal of bite that it absolutely should have; the jokes about Aladeen’s cruelty, anti-Semitism, and sexism are all generic enough to be funny without being hilarious.
Secondly, conceding that he is a mere movie character: he’s a much better movie character when he’s a ranting dictator than when he’s an exile in New York. Perhaps this is because it’s inherently funnier to ridicule men with great power than men with no power, and perhaps because the exile sequences are far thicker with plot than the opening and the occasional flashbacks which find Aladeen storming around being imperious in very much the sketch-comedy fashion typical of pretty much every other project Cohen has spearheaded.
Thirdly, the film’s real satiric target, the mercenary imperialism that passes for foreign policy these days, and the way that the nominal American “left” is content to dabble in ineffectual identity politics games while ignoring and thus enabling the country’s erosion into a lapsed democracy, is handled clumsily and at times with far too much hectoring, “I’m going to tell you a lesson now” obviousness, and yet seeing those themes presented so blithely in a mainstream studio production is rather bracing anyway. Cohen gets a big ostensibly comic monologue at the end, where he talks about the glories of totalitarianism while exactly describing the state of America in the 2010s, for example, and it fails entirely as humor given that all it really consists of is the actor reading blogosphere talking points in his silly Aladeen voice. And yet, given how quickly things like “the 1%” and “bank bailouts” have been turned into pop culture signposts and robbed of their political meaning, there’s something secretly thrilling about being forcibly confronted with politics right smack dab in a breezy, fizzy summer comedy.
On the other hand, the film’s treatment of Zoey and her earnest social activist friends feels like a whole lot of pointless hedging: “Haha, look at the willfully unobservant arch-feminist hippie who can’t even run a shitty organic food store! But, of course, we love arch-feminist hippies.” The character is easily the worst major element in the film, though it’s still exhilarating to see Faris get a chance to play someone resembling a human being in a movie that doesn’t go out of its way to demean her.
Fourthly: it really, really feels like the movie ought to be funnier than it is. The sequences with Aladeen being a psychopath with an army have a magnificent black comedy kick, and there’s not much of anything in the whole movie that flat-out doesn’t work, though a prolonged masturbation joke comes closest. Megan Fox and Edward Norton make cameos and are immeasurably good sports about it; and several other people put in uncredited (and even unspeaking) appearances just to join in the fun, and Cohen is operating at precisely the same heightened level throughout: so I really can’t figure out what about the middle 40 minutes just isn’t clicking for me. And comedy being notoriously subjective, I cannot say who else will feel the same way, but my own response for far too much of the movie was a single repeated thought: “This is playful. This is amusing. This is naughty. I wish I was laughing right now.”