Every fibre of my being wants to be able to tell you to see The Dictator and to be prepared to laugh your ass off. But ever since the moment the final credits actually start on Cohen’s latest roast and not so subtle slap in the face of all backwards-thinking Americans, I have been grappling with how I truly feel about the film.
I immediately tweeted that it was hilarious, ridiculous and disturbing. Days later, I still am having trouble trying to muster anything else to say. Cohen and director Larry Charles seem to be hellbent on a quest of destroying any semblance of the line between good and bad taste, and this film is no different. In fact, it may be their most outrageous outing yet.
And while that should be a great thing, it is actually far from.
The film follows Admiral General Aladeen (Sacha Baron Cohen), the dictator of the fictional North African nation, the Republic of Wadiya. He’s about as oppressive and controversial a leader as you might imagine (one of his many changes as leader involves changing the words positive and negative, as well as yes and no, to “Aladeen”), and is in the midst of dealing with repeated United Nations’ requests to search for WMDs he may be stockpiling. But upon traveling to New York to make a key speech, he is kidnapped and stripped of his distinctive beard. With the future of his country hanging in the balance, Aladeen must find a way to descend back to his rightful throne before some real changes are put into place.
Think of the funniest moments and best jokes to come from Borat and Brüno. While it may be harder for the latter, I still hear pointed references and quotes from the former to this day. A good chunk of the jokes in The Dictator seem to be provoking the same subject matter as both of these films, and ends up making many of the same jokes. Except. most of these jokes have become rather stale, and the ones that do stick are only funny for a short while.
Even then, it only seemed like pockets of my sold out theatre were laughing consistently at the tropes Cohen was destroying. The rest were quite likely, repulsed at what Cohen is trying to pass as comedy. I laughed early on at the loving dedication the film opens on, but I could only hear stifled laughter from everyone else. Another overdone joke much later in the film, one that made me question why I was laughing because of how disturbing it truly was, had many people laughing and a few people preparing to roll in the aisles. That being said, I still heard more shocks of disgust and horror at the sheer audacity of what Cohen was able to pull off.
The fish-out-of-water story has been done so many times over and The Dictator does not even try to try to make any changes. It just moves, almost carelessly, from point to point, merely as a means to set up the next dimwitted or racist joke. The film may be a straight forward narrative as opposed to a faux documentary, but it still plays out almost the exact same way (albeit, with an actual romantic subplot involving Anna Faris). While I am thankful the film clocked in at around a merciful 83 minutes, it feels like a good chunk of the running time was simply wasted. There are some great jokes sprinkled throughout, but too many are put into place as a replacement for actual story.
But for all the issues with story and the silly jokes, what The Dictator proves above all else, is that Cohen is the single most fearless actor working in mainstream cinema. While we lost the documentary feel, we never lost the frightening authenticity Cohen brings to his character. He always maintains a bizarre sense of enthusiasm and strength, even during the most ridiculous of jokes. He exudes a confidence that makes you believe this character is not a simple creation, but is actually a living, breathing person.
While I would love to see him try something different with his next lead performance, it pains me to think that these brazen roles he writes for himself are the best we can ever hope to get out of him. He is a gifted comic actor, but he is slowly typecasting himself. Soon, there will not be much else for him to do outside of being the obnoxious foreigner. In looking over his filmography though, it appears that comment may have come all too late.
Supporting character wise, there are no real standouts. Faris composes herself and has a few funny moments playing the straight man to Cohen but she looks very confused and almost uncomfortable with what she has to do in the film (awful haircut notwithstanding). And considering some of the jokes Cohen forces her into, I think everyone will be able to understand why.
Ben Kingsley fares even worse, looking positively embarrassed to be involved in the film. And when the man who once played Gandhi has gotten to the point of embarrassment over a role he likely took solely for the cheque, it says all too much. A few fun and surprising people show up in extended cameos throughout the film (specifically John C. Reilly, who gets one of the best lines), but most of their work amounts to very little outside of a setup for Cohen.
I laughed quite a bit during The Dictator, but afterwards, I felt like the overall experience left me a little empty. I like that Cohen and Charles finally dropped the faux documentary filmmaking style and went with a straight narrative structure, but that style was about the only thing they revised. The jokes walk a fine line between silly and downright disturbing, and there is not much to the story at all. The film is a rental at best, or the short wait for the montage of “Best Jokes” to hit YouTube. It hurts me to suggest it, but it’s about time to grow up and give us something new Sacha.