SOCIOPATH Admiral General Aladeen (Cohen) is ruler and oppressor over the mighty nation of Wadiya. While travelling to New York to address the United Nations, his uncle (Kingsley) attempts to have Aladeen killed and replaced by a look-a-like, so that he can assume power and sell off Wadiya’s oil deposits under the guise of democracy. Stripped of his wealth and beard, Aladeen must expose the conspiracy against him before it’s too late.
Cohen’s fans will recall the tepid disappointment of Ali G: Indahouse (2002). The Dictator shares the fiction approach of that film and confirms the superiority of Cohen’s fiction/documentary hybrids over these pure fictions. One thing that doesn’t carry well from the former is the moronic nature of his characters. With the Ali G sketches, Borat and Brüno, the stupidity of his characters was the crucial element that served as bait to smoke out the racists, bigots and liars lurking just beneath his victims’ smiley facades. In those situations we knew Cohen was also there somewhere, laughing behind his mask. We were in on the joke. In purely fictionalised worlds such as The Dictator, Cohen disappears into his character – we don’t have the pleasure of laughing with him, only at his creation. It’s somehow a colder experience altogether..
In Chaplin’s masterpiece The Great Dictator (1940), which seems to have inspired Cohen’s film, we see an oppressed Jewish barber assume the Fuhrer’s identity and ultimately bring peace to Europe. The plot parallels of stolen facial hair and dopplegängers are striking, but Chaplin’s intended victim is the Nazi regime, a worthy and timely opponent for a man who could command a global audience. Cohen on the other hand, the son of a Welsh father and Israeli mother is more unfocused in his criticism: the general target of which could be interpreted as everyone except the Jewish community (with particular fun poking at Muslim nations). When at one point Aladeen has an epiphany and decides to become ‘a nice guy’, he miraculously starts using Yiddish. Suddenly the film starts to look like propaganda. It is suspicious when everyone else gets ribbed: Americans from Clooney to Cheney, leaders from Berlusconi to Kim Jong Il, Mountain goat farmers, Sudanese tribes and even homeless people – I’m not suggesting he pick on Jewish people indiscriminately (such as that sweet elderly couple in Borat – who were incidentally, the only vaguely redeemable characters in that film), but if he’s making a political comedy, how about a dig at the shady Jewish lobbying in DC or the human rights violations committed by the Israeli government on a daily basis. Not funny you say? Well, there’s nothing funny about gang rape either, but that doesn’t stop Cohen trying to make us laugh about it several times in this film.
The major contrast between his two fictions and his two hybrid films are his bravery. When Brüno was deep in redneck territory and snogging another man in a wresting cage, you had to admire his balls (almost literally). Where as seeing Cohen in this constructed world taking pot shots at everyone, except those closer to home, seems a little … cowardly.
All this might even be forgivable if so many jokes didn’t fall flat. Genuinely funny moments are too few, and almost all of those aren’t politicised. Instead, they succeed on Cohen’s comic timing and physicality. The end features a speech that mirrors Chaplin’s final speech in The Great Dictator. While not as eloquent or moving, it is commendable in its critique of US foreign policy and we’re allowed an all too brief glimpse at Cohen’s signature heroism.
Of course, there’s also the obligatory penis shot. It’s getting tired. He needs new schtick.
The Dictator (11)
Dir: Larry Charles US comedy, 2012, 83 mins;
Sacha Baron Cohen, Anna Faris, Ben Kingsley, John C Reilly
Premiered May 16