In Brief : Sacha Baron Cohen falls foul of success with ‘The Dictator’. Heavy on production costs, but light on satire and comedy alike.
Mini Review : Even die hard fans of Sacha Baron Cohen will probably admit he got the script wrong on this one. It may be that a couple of changes to the writing group he worked with on ‘Borat’ (06) and ‘Bruno’ (09), have made all the difference. However, with the same director, Larry Charles, on board as for those two successful films, it seems the most important change was that of the narrative. Here we see the mix of the archetypal modern romantic comedy, one designed to leave a smile on your face at the end and so distract you from the fact you didn’t really laugh much during the film, and a familiar type of character from Cohen, a despotic African dictator replete with toilet gags galore. All of the candid camera reality show intrigue of his previous work is gone, and what’s left simply isn’t witty, funny, or interesting enough to be particularly worthwhile watching. Unless of course a missile being called ‘The Beard of Doom’ has you rolling around in stitches, in which case you will LOVE this film. A successful PR campaign involving Cohen appearing in character along with his female virgin model bodyguards on numerous talk shows, admittedly using the same jokes most of the time, has ensured an overly long run for ‘The Dictator’ in movie theatres. On the strength of the final material, it is likely he will find that a bit more difficult to repeat in the future.
Plot : Admiral general Aladeen, dictator of the African nation of Wadiya, rules his country with an iron fist. He has all that money can buy, including Megan Fox, but secretly he is lonely, and longs for some higher meaning in his life, along with the destruction of Israel. The double crossing of his right hand man and procurer of women, Tamir, proves serendipitous, as he is put on the path of true love on the streets of New York City. But will he embrace this new opportunity, or will he reclaim his rightful throne in time to prevent Wadiya adopting a new democratic constitution?
Full Review (Contains spoilers) : Sacha Baron Cohen’s latest cinematic effort falls flat right from the word go. Well, almost from the word go. The very first thing the audience sees is a dedication to the late Kim Jong-il, suggesting that maybe what follows will be a biting political satire interfused with Cohen’s very particular style of comedy and perhaps moments where we once again find ourselves cringing at the plight of his onscreen victims, both wanting to turn away but also unwilling to miss what their reaction is going to be. This time, however, the famed for controversy Cohen has gone for a much more mainstream style of film, one in which he simply plays a character in a story full of actors rather than a mixture of thespians and chosen public targets. The result is a pretty formulaic romcom, with Anna Faris providing the rom, and racist toilet humour filling in for the latter.
Red Dragon likes the premise. The idea of sending-up the archetypal dictator, which still describes many autocrats around the globe, has a lot going for it. Imagine if you will, young members of the North Korean military watching their late leader on parade, humming ‘I’m So Ronery’ behind his back, under their breath, having gotten hold of an illegal copy of ‘Team America’ (04). It’s a wonderful image, but fantasy or not, that film produced a lasting legacy of jokes and caricatures, accidentally as much of Matt Damon as of Kim Jong-il. The titular character in this case proves to be someone we’d probably quite like to forget, and quite quickly too. His only real attempt at satire comes from a speech at the end, where he states if only America was a dictatorship then the majority of wealth could be distributed to one percent of the population, the rich could get tax cuts and be bailed out when they gamble and lose etc etc. It’s not bad, albeit a little obvious.
Cohen plays Aladeen, from the fictional north-east Africa country of Wadiya (wadi is the traditional Arabic word for valley). Wadiya encompasses parts of the real countries of Eritrea and Ethiopia, neither of which are actual dictatorships, though both are very far from what anyone in the West would consider democracies. The concept for the project was apparently thought of before the Arab spring took place. Perhaps not so fortuitous with much of the source material being deposed from power, but Wadiya is nevertheless well placed to ape parties from both North Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. The film’s biggest problem is that once you remove the scathing realist element from Cohen’s work, that which was so prevalent in ‘Borat’ and ‘Bruno’, what’s left behind is pretty crass. We see, for example, Aladeen relieving himself whilst suspended over a New York street and the ensuing excrement knocking a lady beneath him unconscious. The lady in question had just been robbed of her handbag and was shouting for help, as if Cohen is now literally going to poo on the stereotypes of cinema, and shortly afterward he just can’t resist showing his privates to the world once more, though in a much less confrontational way than in ‘Bruno’.
Even worse than the infantile nature of a lot of the humour is the fact that some of it is downright sick. Racist comments appear every now and then, some of which can be carried by the nature of Cohen’s character, and some of which don’t come off so well, but by far the worst offence is when we watch the dictator playing a video game based on the Munich Olympics, in which we see him first person shooter style bursting into the contenders homes and gunning down the Jewish Olympians. The fact that Sacha Baron Cohen is Jewish probably means that in his own mind anything anti-Semitic in his work is fine, with his character out to destroy Israel anyway, but I think it’s fair to say that for the average viewer this is probably going a little too far.
It’s not that the whole is completely devoid of laughs, it’s just that they’re few and far between. When they do come they are pretty predictable, and most of them were in the trailer anyway. The decision to have a romantic undertow, which eventually redeems the dictator to a large extent and makes him see the error of his ways, is instigated in such a plain and blasé manner that it’s impossible not to see it in many ways as a U-turn on Cohen’s previous hell raiser antics. Has he now received one too many lawsuits? Though, with Anna Faris in the love interest role it is kind of a package deal, with a similarly lacklustre romcom adventure in her back catalogue for every other film of value. The idea of a ruthless dictator being seduced and softened is not without merit, it’s a valid point of theological debate whether or not the despots of the world have ever known love in their lives to be capable of the things they do, or if they ever suffer from nightmarish regret when they have a family and children of their own. Here though, with the one exception of a scene where Aladeen helps birth a child, it’s simply a very dull plot device.
There are a number of big name stars who make an appearance throughout the piece – the most frequent of them being sir Ben Kingsley, who plays his duplicitous role of Aladeen’s top general very well, but for whom this will rank just above ‘The Love Guru’ (08) on his CV. John C Reilly delivers a couple of choice lines and proves the best of the supports before making an impromptu exit from the film. That is, of course, unless you include the support given by Megan Fox’s bra, as she slips out of Aladeen’s bed looking sleek and resplendent, having been paid to spend the night with him and stating she’s off to see the Italian Prime Minister but complaining her ‘goody bag’ doesn’t contain as much as Katy Perry’s did. Is someone on the production good friends with Russell Brand? Bizarrely Edward Norton also appears briefly, having similarly prostituted himself to a Chinese man in a toilet – a lineless cameo even shorter than that of his in ‘The Invention of Lying’ (09). Is he simply embracing those shunned by the Hollywood establishment after the troubles he had on ‘The Incredible Hulk’ (08)?
This is Sacha Baron Cohen’s most expensive outing yet and you might be slightly entertained by it, but unfortunately it’s much more likely you’ll simply be disappointed. Give this one a miss, go and see the Avengers again instead.
The Red Dragon
“Listen, while you’re here, I highly recommend a visit to the Empire State building. Before you, or one of your sand monkey cousins, takes it down.” John C Reilly/Clayton
“Why are you guys so anti-dictators? Imagine if America was a dictatorship. You could let one percent of the people, have all the nation’s wealth. You could help your rich friends get richer by cutting their taxes, and bailing them out when they gamble and lose. You could ignore the needs of the poor for health care and education. Your media would appear free but would secretly be controlled by one person and his family. You could wire tap phones, you could torture foreign prisoners, you could have rigged elections, you could lie about why you go to war. You could fill your prisons with one particular racial group, and no one would complain! You could use the media to scare the people into supporting policies that are against their interests!” Admiral General Aladeen/Sacha Baron Cohen