The Dictator – Art 1/5 Ent 4/5 Worth 2/5
What a crushing disappointment for me, as a great fan of Sacha Baron Cohen and Larry Charles, but it felt like a predictable one nonetheless. The Dictator is not the method actor in a mockumentary style we’ve come to know from Borat and Bruno, though it tries to play on that legacy a bit, and is actually closer to the mould of Ali G Indahouse, that is to say fully scripted, and fully tedious. At the very least, it’s a massive improvement for Cohen from Indahouse within the realm of fictional narrative, and stumble or not he’s on two feet while beating the trap he set for himself in Borat by limiting his opportunities for future movies. But The Dictator is a let down, with the largest descriptive word I can think of being “uneven”, in that there are peaks and valleys to its humor, and no sustainable backbone.
The story involves Cohen as a composite character of all bearded bad guys of the past four decades as the head of a fictional Red Sea country bent on nuclear destruction, who is swept from power by his aide-de-camp Ben Kingsley (wearing Hamid Karzai’s hat). Inadvertently pushed into a Coming to America scenario where he’s a riches to rags foreigner not used to the intricacies of developed world citizenry. In order to get back his throne, Cohen must learn the meaning of democracy and equality from an implausibly peppy Whole Foods-esque Occupy Protester girl (whom he initially mistakes for a little boy). Until then, he gets to act like a pompous ugly foreigner to slushy New York lefties.
The entire film can be wrapped up into the commercial spot where Cohen gets to slap a douchy and pushy customer at the co-op with a fedora. If the yuks aren’t coming from dick and fart jokes or from insensitive cultural/racial stereotypes, they’re coming at the expense of First World oversensitivity, but not to the degree that would have made this a fun movie if it would have focused on the latter area. Using the jagged personality of a narcissistic Arab dictator to make fun of the bloated self-worth and political correctness of urbane Westerners could have been the heart and soul of this picture, and would have been better than the half-baked farce they cooked up.
The film was partially written by Cohen, but he also got help from a trio of writers (Alec Berg, David Mandel, Jeff Schaffer) whose experience is with Seinfeld, Curb Your Enthusiasm, EuroTrip and the Cat in the Hat movie. While the first two make for decent TV, the latter two are more along the lines of the cleverness in this film, if there is any to be found. So this isn’t groundbreaking stuff, and avoids any strong critiques of Asiatic despotism or even western politics, though the movie awkwardly tries for both and then sort of gives up and is happy having earned our $10. In a transparent attempt at irony, while singing the praises of dictatorship, Cohen’s character lists all of our current problems as positive virtues in his country, yet the truth of the joke is barely above that of a cute email forward sent by loopy relatives. So the question is, was this a missed opportunity, or the bare minimum effort to earn a paycheck?
With allusions to other famous Middle Eastern dictators and their gaudy cults of personality, the film rounds itself out with every crude stereotype of Arabs, conflating authoritarian regimes with revolutionary Islamists and again with rough Bedouin idiosyncrasies. The sexual insanity of Arab culture is spoofed but it gets blended into the rampant hedonism of a tyrant’s Caligula-like tastes. The movie comes just short of flying into town on a magic carpet. Some of the Third Worldisms are genuinely funny, others feel forced. Then out of nowhere something so nasty and vile comes out of nowhere to give you a belly laugh, but then issues itself back into mediocrity like a suicide bomber. But the movie’s low brow humor at the expense of Arabs was only offensive in how glib it treated a rather serious issue, to the point of making the film mere whimsical paperweightery.