Directed by Larry Charles
Screenplay by Sacha Baron Cohen, Alec Berg, David Mandel, Jeff Schaffer
Sacha Baron Cohen, Anna Faris, Ben Kingsley
How long is The Dictator? 83 minutes.
What is The Dictator rated? R for strong crude and sexual content, brief male nudity, language and some violent images.
Sacha Baron Cohen Continues His Commitment to Pushing Boundaries and Intricate Comedic Character Work
What differentiates Sacha Baron Cohen from the vast majority of his contemporaries is his willingness to take on taboo subjects. Despite the rise of R-rated comedies over the past decade or so, it’s difficult to say that many of them tackle the issues that most people are uncomfortable talking about. Their sexual content and foul language might be funny, but they lack the edge that only comes when you parody something that our “open” society prefers to leave alone. Topics you don’t realize aren’t made fun of until you hear someone making fun of them. It’s why shows like South Park, Louis, and Curb Your Enthusiasm occupy a special place in the comedy world.
In his latest film The Dictator, Cohen ridicules many different topics — some obvious, some not as much. Along with warlords and Middle Eastern politics, he also takes on political correctness, activism, racial humor, American prejudice, foreign prejudice, celebrity, and the romantic comedy genre — many of them in ways that might upset some more sensitive members of the audience. Additionally, he shows a keen awareness for iconic images from our recent spate of dictators, as well as respect for previous films in this genre such as The Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup and Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator. It even handles the concept of last year’s The Devil’s Double more successfully, though I don’t know if the earlier film influenced this one.
The Dictator stars Cohen as Admiral General Aladeen (as well as his body double Efawadh), the leader of the fictional country of Wadiya. Aladeen is an unrepentant brutal warlord caring for nothing but fulfilling his wants and building a nuclear bomb (preferably to send to Israel or America). Filled with impressive set design and costuming, the scenes in Wadiya are the best parts of the movie because of how it portrays the unrestrained lunacy that comes with being a God among one’s people. And Cohen clearly likes — both as a writer and an actor — delving into the world of Wadiya’s Supreme Leader.
But because Aladeen won’t let UN inspectors in to inspect his plants, he must address the UN or risk air raids on his country. While in America, he’s betrayed by his right hand man (Ben Kingsley’s Tamir) who plots against him and replaces him with his idiotic, easily controllable body double Efawadh. Cohen nails the doofus character with a wide-eyed silliness and stupidity that harkens back to the best of slapstick. Desperate to prevent free elections from coming to Wadiya, Aladeen must reclaim his identity in order to let fascism reign.
The concept of the film shows Cohen’s willingness to engage the audience in a way most other comedy films won’t. Although his characters like Borat and Bruno weren’t particularly nice people, General Aladeen is a truly and unabashedly evil person. There’s no warm core to our protagonist, and he doesn’t gain one even after meeting his love interest, Zoey (Anna Faris) the organic foods co-op owner who only hires political refugees. Even though I’d argue that the movie would have been stronger without a malevolent reason behind the push for Wadiyan democracy, it’s somewhat rescued because we know that its new leaders wouldn’t have been worse than Aladeen. At the end, we still must side with a horribly self-centered and violent man whose sole goal is to rule with an iron fist over a populace that really wants him gone, and the film pulls it off.
No longer adopting the documentary/mockumentary style that made the Ali G franchise so unique, Cohen continues to show himself as an intelligent comedian/comedy writer who understands that our new limits are race and non-Christian religions. As with Borat, he disarms these hot topics by using slurs with confidence. The manner with which he says these forbidden words takes away their power and makes the situation, and our everyday responses to them, clever rather than simply funny or shocking.
The Dictator isn’t as biting or “hard hitting” as his earlier works Borat and Bruno, which were also directed by Larry Charles. Nevertheless, it is an interesting and mostly successful experiment that allows Cohen to show a multitude of his strengths, especially broad physical humor and an admirable creativity in designing comedic set pieces.
While it occasionally seems as though The Dictator tries to take on too many things or lacks a focus, this might also be one of its biggest strengths. The Dictator isn’t some hard-hitting look at international politics nor does it aim to have a social message. This is primarily a goofy and senseless movie.
The film even culminates in a speech that might be considered an inverse of Chaplin’s classic speech in The Great Dictator, one that will possibly lead to melodramatic articles entitled “Why Does Sacha Baron Cohen Hate America?” But taking it seriously, as some are bound to, misses the point of the entire movie. Cohen never picks a side in The Dictator — not because “everyone is equal,” but because everyone is ridiculous and adopting that view of the world makes the most sense. Like in the best comedies, every subject is fodder, and everyone is played for fools.