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The Dictator

The Dictator

Even Castro would envy that full, luxuriant beard

dir: Larry Charles

Meh. It’s no Borat, but then again, it’s going for something else. Something very much else.

The film starts with a dedication in loving memory to recently deceased North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il, long may his crazy ass fry in hell, and it’s called The Dictator, so we’re expecting an Ali G – South Park level of subtlety and historical complexity right off the bat.

Or maybe we’re not.

Sometimes, as audiences, we get not what we’d like but what we deserve. Since, like an undisciplined child, Sacha Baron Cohen’s bad behaviour not only goes unpunished or ever corrected, but is instead rewarded with money, critical acclaim and redheaded wives, he ends up giving us exactly what we might not like, but should totally expect.

The fundamental difference here is that he’s acting with other actors, and not inflicting his persona onto unsuspecting members of the public. What this shares with the other flicks is that he behaves in a similarly vulgar and boorish manner, in order to make us laugh, but the other characters, in on the act, either ignore, feign shock towards or applaud his repellent behaviour.

When he does this stuff in Borat or Bruno, the bits that should or would otherwise horrify a decent human being are why it matters to us, and where the humour comes from. Otherwise it’s pretty weak sauce.

On the other hand, a phrase I hate which I’ll never use again under threat of cutting one of my hands off once those words leave my fingers ever again, it would have been hard for Cohen to play a ‘real’ dictator, because that would either get him shot, jailed or at the head of some tinpot dictatorship for real. He is trying, after all, to wrest laughs from that profoundly unfunny subject, which is the genocidal awfulness of despots in their various horrible countries.

I have double standards, everyone has them whether they joke about them or not. I can giggle when he’s ‘winning’ a race where he’s shooting the other competitors in order to guarantee a win, or telling his bodyguards to kill someone over the most minor of infractions. When the same chap is speaking proudly of his memories raping and torturing women, well, even I get all tut-tut-y.

Cohen’s humour has always erred on the side of getting laughs out of the uncomfortable, which is why he relishes playing an idiotic tyrant braggart who constantly blames the Jews for everything, and threatens all of Israel with nuclear destruction. Obviously he doesn’t want such a thing to happen, obviously he’s parroting the various bloviating idiots with delusions of godhood who nonetheless have been dying quite ignoble deaths in the gutter lately. Ah Gaddafi, we hardly knew ye.

It’s not the horrible sadism of these types that is meant to be the driving force behind such a story, or at least the main source of the humour in it, I don’t think. It’s the messianic hubris, the Olympian distance, the complete disregard for humanity meshed with overweening delusions of grandeur, resulting in childish, petty monsters that would be pitied if they weren’t treating people so abominably on a whim.

The golden guns, the wearing of medals and uniforms so elaborate and meaningless to make one feel to be a hero, the ever-present portraits and murals to oneself, the better-than-life gargantuan statues, it tends not to point towards a humble soul beneath all the trappings.

It’s impossible to think of the character he plays here, being Admiral General Aladeen, without thinking of people like the shitty sons of scumbags like Saddam and Gaddafi, rather than the despots themselves. At no stage is there any pretence that Aladeen is anything but a spoiled idiot, with some sadistic leanings, rather than a cold despot who rules his oppressed subjects with an iron fist. There are no shortage of scenes where he says and does awful things, but we’re meant to laugh and think, “you rascal” rather than “you monster”.

It’s hard to do, in that I just didn’t find a lot of it that funny. The rape jokes, the torture jokes, the stupid plot machinations, the mock-sexism, mock-racism, mock-anti-semitism in total occasionally made me smirk, but I don’t recall laughing that often, if at all.

Mainly it’s because he’s a horrible character, regardless of the intentions, and he does and says horrible things endlessly, from beginning to end, because he’s horrible, and he deserves to die in a ditch. I find it hard to laugh even if such a wretch acts the buffoon. The set-up is there, but not the material, so it’s hard to care or be amused by whatever outcome we’re meant to hope for.

The flick even mocks that desire on our part, because he appears to be on a path of redemption, due to Luv, or Wuv, whatever cutesy variation on Love you can think of. Of course we’re not meant to take it seriously, and the ending undercuts it completely anyway. Still, he does spend the majority of the flick plotting to take back power from his evil uncle (Sir Ben Kingsley, typecast as the evil scheming uncle), because he’s affronted by the idea that democracy could ever take root in his backwards oil-rich hellhole.

I think the idea is funnier in theory than the execution, mostly because it’s such a clumsy and childish approach to the material, but then again, that’s about as much as we could expect. It’s not a satire, really, it’s just a delightfully crude comedy with a lunatic in charge, acting like the screeching centre-of-attention craver we know him to be. These murderous dictators are too broad as targets for it really to be in any impactful, but when we realise the true target of Cohen’s satire, which clearly isn’t Putin, or the Burmese generals or Sudan or Libya, then it makes a bit more sense.

When exhorting Americans to abandon democracy, and to embrace dictatorship as a more effective form of governing, he lists all that they could then do: deny the majority of the citizenry health care, orchestrate the system such that 1 per cent of the populace controls 99 per cent of the country’s wealth, torture people at will etc, it’s not really anyone else other than Americans that Cohen, sorry, Aladeen, is mocking.

Also, in the interests of pretending to mock all possible targets, lefty-progressive types are mocked as well, what with their adherence to organic produce and unshaved armpits, which surely all of them possess. Anna Faris, looking nothing like Anna Faris usually does, has the thankless task of reminding Aladeen why his awful behaviour is awful by explaining everything to him in PC terms meant to make even the most well-meaning progressive roll their eyes in disgust. Plenty of the movie’s jokes are at her expense, mostly mocking her for looking like a lesbian hobbit.

Ah, Sasha, you always go for the hard targets, don’t you?

Jason Mantzoukas does okay as someone who used to head Aladeen’s nuclear program (solely for peaceful purposes, of course), who’s since relocated to the Little Wadiya enclave of New York, and who hungers for power again. He’s strangely funny, but the majority of his role is that of the almost-as-bad sidekick to a Sacha Baron Cohen character. You know how thankless that is. At least we didn’t get a scene of them wrestling naked together.

He does get a rant scene, screaming abuse at Aladeen’s fecklessness, which sounded like it was lifted straight out of a Seinfeld episode, which did not endear me to the scene at all. Considering that Larry Charles directs here, famous not only for the Borat flick but for working on Seinfeld as well, it all makes a horrible kind of sense.

I’m not sure about this flick in the wash-up. I feel like other people might like this flick more than I did, in that they might find a lot of it pants-wettingly hilarious as a contrast to my finding it mildly amusing at best for most of its length, whereas I still find a lot of his pretend bad-boy ‘let’s see how naughty I can be’ stuff a bit more interesting, though not enough. To contrast what I was saying about the flick earlier, I don’t think I expected it to work as a comedy of shocking or embarrassing moments, and nor do I think it should have. Maybe they should have gone for a more conventional comedy, rather than trying to mesh the two. It might be surprising or shocking to see a former Middle Eastern dictator trashing an organic supermarket in real life, or denigrating women to their faces; it’s low or no impact in a scripted comedy.

The least funny scene involved trying to help a woman give birth, and multiple hands being used to coax the poor child out of the birth canal, as well as a mobile phone. I felt like I was watching one of the lesser Harold and Kumar flicks, or even worse, one of those deathless Movie movies, you know, like Scary Movie, Epic Movie, Date Movie, Disaster Movie, and on it goes. That’s not a good level to be operating on.

I would like it if Sacha Baron Cohen were able to make the transition to conventional comedies, in the way that he’s doing okay in small roles in dramatic flicks (like Sweeney Todd, and Hugo, as an example that he’s not a one-trick pony). It’s not as if I don’t want him to succeed. He’s got mouths to feed, like the rest of us. I’m just not sure that this flick was the funniest or best way to do so.

6 times it’s a shame Gaddafi never got a chance to see it out of 10

“You two make a cute couple. But could you do this later? When you're not elbow deep in my vagina?” – a question of priorities – The Dictator