For a riotous comedy about a North African dictator imagine a documentary about Colonel Gaddafi’s 42-year reign in Libya. Were he still around to see The Dictator, Gaddafi might have felt flattered by the number of features that Sacha Baron Cohen has borrowed from his glorious regime.
There are the costumes, of course, and the glamorous female bodyguards. There is the habit of travelling with a gargantuan retinue, and the casual disposal of perceived enemies. Like Cohen’s Admiral General Aladeen, Gaddafi liked to be known as a universal genius with a passion for coining new names for common things. Gaddafi retitled the month of January “Ayn al-Nar”, which means “Where is the Fire?”. Cohen’s dictator takes the less poetical course of renaming things “Aladeen”, after himself. This includes the words for both “positive” and “negative”.
It’s a mystery how Cohen failed to borrow the incident in which Gaddafi farted his way through a BBC television interview with John Simpson. One would think it was right up his Ali G.
The Dictator is directed by Larry Charles, but it is Cohen’s film, in the same way that few people can remember who directed the Marx Brothers’ movies. Not for the easily offended, it has the capacity to offend almost everyone. The Dictator is vulgar to the point where the audience groans involuntarily, with a relentless below-the-belt humour that veers wildly between the sharp one-liner and the toilet wall. But it is funny, and occasionally very funny.
The movie is basically a succession of gags, but there is a rudimentary storyline that revolves around Admiral-General Aladeen, dictator of the North African state of Wadiya, who comes to New York to answer his critics at the United Nations. Soon after his arrival he is the victim of a bungled plot by his right-hand man, Tamir (Ben Kingsley). He finds himself pitched into the streets while an imbecile body double is put forward in his place. The film details Aladeen’s efforts to regain power, with the assistance of Zoey, the radical feminist owner of an alternative grocery store (Anna Faris); and Nadal, an émigré Wadiyan rocket scientist (Jason Mantzoukas), who managed to escape a sentence of execution.
Aladeen’s motivation is to rescue his people from the impending threat of democracy. Indeed, when the despot gets the chance to address an American audience, Cohen drops the toilet humour and gives us a blast of drole political satire.
The Dictator is a return-to-form for this death-defying comedian, after the smutty interlude of Bruno. Cohen’s first feature, Borat, owed much of its success to its masquerade as a documentary about America made by a reporter from Kazakhstan. Although the natives of Kazakhstan felt insulted, the real target of Cohen’s satire was the United States. Ironically, Borat has been the catalyst for a significant increase in Kazakhstan tourism.
The USA is also in Cohen’s sights in The Dictator, its everyday madness thrown into relief by the over-the-top madness of Aladeen’s Wadiya. In many ways this is a more ambitious film than Borat, being conceived as a self-contained fiction with high production values. The only point where Cohen has pulled his punches is in creating a fictional African nation. In every other aspect there is no caution, no holding back.
Fearlessness is the great virtue of Cohen’s brand of comedy. If he begins a joke he will take it to its logical conclusion, no matter how tasteless or inflammatory. A scene where Aladeen delivers a baby in the grocery store is beyond taste. Another laboriously conceived gag, in which Aladeen and Nadal freak out two co-passengers in a helicopter by talking about the new Porsche 9-11, is funny because it walks such a threadbare tightrope. Has any other movie succeeded in making a joke about 9-11?
When one compares The Dictator to a film such as Iron Sky, which presents itsef as a tasteless black comedy about Nazis from the dark side of the moon, the latter apears clichéd, lame and conservative. Like most so-called comedies, Iron Sky can’t escape the cosy stereotypes such as the well-meaning heroine, or the exploited black astronaut who turns hero.
Of The Dictator’s supporting cast, Zoey is gradually weaned from her caring-and-sharing busiess practices in favour of Aladeen’s authoritarian approach. Nadal wants to restore his former enemy to power so he can go home and keep building a nuclear missile. Tamir’s drive to make Wadiya a democracy is based solely on his desire to enrich himself by selling the country’s oil reserves to western corporations.
Then there is the Chinese representative to the UN, (Bobby Lee) who is paying celebrities large sums to participate in depraved sex acts. “It’s basically a power trip,” he confesses.
All the celebrities that have cameos in this film, or are only mentioned in passing, are whores who will do anything for cash. The procession starts with Megan Fox, who screws Aladeen, but won’t stay for a cuddle. It’s a gruesome reflection on celebrity culture by a comedian who has been embraced by Hollywood, but obviously hasn’t fallen in love.
The Dictator, USA, rated MA, 83 mins
Published by the Australian Financial Review, May 19, 2012