I’ve never been as big a fan of Sacha Baron Cohen as the rest of the world, it seems sometimes at any rate, so I went into The Dictator not quite sure what to expect.
What it is, is crass, shock value humour, with the bare semblance of a plot, but it does kind of work.
It has a problem, in that it is trying be two things at once, and only slightly succeeding in both cases. The kind of African tyrants that The Dictator is trying to send up – Cohen’s “Aladeen” might as well be called Ghaddafi – is a subject ripe for satire, and it’s timely too. The Arab Spring has flung these figures and places into the mainstream consciousness big time, so a good send up is bound to go over well.
But it’s also your classic “fish out of water” story, as the titular dictator gets lost in New York as a result of a slightly botched coup attempt from the, apparent, villain in the form of Ben Kingsley. I say “apparent”, because Aladeen is not a hero at all, and he isn’t someone you really root for in the course of the movie.
Anyway, you’ve got Aladeen acting like a North African tyrant even while working in an organic produce shop in New York. Like I said, this duality works in some cases not so much in others. The quick cuts whenever Aladeen encounters someone he thought he had executed work, the running gag of him changing every other word in the Wadiyan language to “Aladeen” grates after a while. Aladeeen cracking up during a speech where he is trying to indicate his nuclear research will be used for peaceful purposes works, complaining about broadband costs, not so much.
Then, on the other side of the coin, Aladeen introducing tyrannical policies and a cult of personality to his grocer role works, a really forced bit where he is mistaken for a suicide bomber in a helicopter doesn’t. Him marching down a New York street with a fleet of sports cars kinda works, but breaking into the funeral of an elderly black man to steal his beard doesn’t.
It is hit and miss. The worst is probably a late segment where Cohen delivers an unpalatable diatribe on tyrannical powers and current affairs in the United States, which was misplaced and cringe-inducing in its lack of subtlety. The Dictator works much better for a series of rapid fair jokes and cultural observations/clashes then as something trying to make a semi-serious point.
Especially because the plot is crazy. Cohen’s reputation, especially after the success of Borat, has attracted a host of notable names for brief cameos, from A-Listers like Megan Fox and Ed Nortan, to the likes of Aasif Mandvi (The Daily Show) and Chris Parnell (30 Rock – Dr Spaceman). Anna Feris is the love interest, but she’s mostly just someone for Cohen’s Aladeen to bounce off of in terms of jokes. Ben Kingsley isn’t really trying that hard, and I never would have associated him with this kind of comedy anyway.
If you’re not in love with shock jokes, then you should go elsewhere for entertainment. It only gets really awful (not always in a bad way) on a few occasions – a pregnancy related scene is the apex – but it could certainly put people off.
Cohen has come a long way since his urban scumbag routine truly launched his career, but this isn’t a very “new” entry to his repertoire, being little more than a slightly less “reality” version of Borat with more politics/current affairs commentary thrown in. It’s watchable, but not a classic of the genre.