The Dictator

By
Ashley Clark

Those of you expecting a proper return to form from Sacha Baron Cohen after the patchy Bruno will be disappointed with The Dictator. It’s his first foray into fully scripted film comedy since the ill-fated Ali G Indahouse, and the absence of any improvisatory danger and tension is keenly felt. The actor is clearly at his best on the fly, and his powers are curbed dramatically within the confines of a clunky narrative which trades largely on a mixture of desperate-to-shock puerility and scattershot, underdeveloped satire.

Baron Cohen stars as General Aladeen, the feared leader of fictional North African republic Wadiyah. A whistlestop tour of his activities quickly paint him as a tyrant of the highest order. He organises his own Olympics and uses the starter pistol to shoot anyone who might overtake him. He’s also prone to gleefully infecting Hollywood stars like Megan Fox, who cameos briefly, with herpes. (He’s in bed with the West, geddit?).

Meanwhile, his sly, duplicitous brother (Ben Kingsley) wants him out of the way so he can ostensibly establish a democracy. A series of plot convolutions swiftly see Aladeen - like Borat before him - shored up in the good ol’ US of A, where he can expose various forms of Western hypocrisy while simultaneously sending up the idiocy and prejudice of his own unreconstructed despotic creation. In the female lead, Anna Faris is handed the umpteenth thankless role of her career as the head of a ridiculously broadly-rendered Brooklyn “vegan feminist collective” of clueless liberals.

Many of the jokes, as you would expect, are tasteless. However instead of shocking, they prove merely cruel, crass and enervating, corroborating New Yorker critic Anthony Lane’s view that when inspiration wilts (which is frequently), Baron Cohen opts for the cheap gross-out. Sexual and scatological humour are served up with reckless abandon, seemingly as a challenge; if you don’t laugh at this, you’re a square, a prude. But what are we supposed to discern from the appalling near-rape sequence involving a pregnant woman, and a baffling scene featuring the abduction of the head from a drug dealer’s corpse at a Harlem funeral, later used for unspeakable purposes? When the Farrelly brothers put this kind of thing on the screen, there’s always an underlying sweetness. Here there’s only shallowness and a bullying cynicism.

It’s not a complete washout; there are a few chuckles to be had along the way and a handful of instances of the sharp insight we expect from the talented actor. But mostly the laughs are thin and reedy. Another bad sign is the reliance on the celebrity cameo for humour; a conceit which underlines the nagging feeling that Baron Cohen - now a major league Hollywood player - is part of the smug, self-congratulatory gang he purports to lambast. Neither does the timing of the film help. Though apparently conceived before the Arab Spring exploded many of the themes explored into the wider popular consciousness, it feels laboured and late-in-the-day.

The Dictator begins with a supposedly humorous dedication to late Korean leader Kim Jong-Il, but all his presence does is call to mind Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s Team America: World Police, a far sharper film which dealt with some similar themes with a damn sight more venom, courage and heart.

 

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