When discussing Sacha Baron Cohen’s latest film The Dictator, I am met with two temptations. The first is to compare this film to Baron Cohen’s other big screen excursions 2006’s Borat and 2009’s Brüno. I find this comparison to be a bit unfair because The Dictator is not a mockumentary like its predecessors, but the plot is fundamentally the same: a man from an Eastern nation travels to America and subjects the audience to a little over an hour of gags that poke fun the incompatibility of his culture with that of the US. Even Larry Charles, who directed both Borat and Brüno, returns for this film, so one can’t help but draw parallels. The second temptation is to review this film through a political lens. This, however, I will not do. Admiral General Aladeen (Baron Cohen), ruler of the fictional North African nation of Wadiya, has obvious allusions to politicians such as Muammar Gaddafi and Saddam Hussein and the film is clearly intended to be a political satire of these figures and their respective styles of governing, but it ultimately fails in this regard.
Nowadays, the terms “parody” and “satire” are often used interchangeably and The Dictator is yet another example of a confusion between the two. Parody is more or less mimicking an already existing source for the sake of humour. Think of Weird Al or the Airplane! movies. Satire, on the other hand, is humourous, but also carries some kind of message with it. The confusion comes from the fact that satire often uses parody to deliver this message, today’s most popular examples including The Daily Show and The Colbert Report. On its most essential level, however, satire is a critique that is meant to not only generate laughs, but also spark critical thought and discussion. Such a critique is largely absent from The Dictator. The film is rendered merely a goofy parody of modern dictators that doesn’t leave much room to talk about it in a political context. There are a couple of nuggets of true satire in the movie, such as Aladeen’s monologue about if America was a dictatorship, but for the most part, the only “message” The Dictator delivers is “Being an oppressive jerk is wrong … so don’t be one …”
“Dictatorships are bad, m’kay?”
I know, you can’t slam a film for not generating intelligent discussion or else nothing would ever get made, but even as a comedy alone, The Dictator is generally ineffective. The characters are surreal, one-dimensional caricatures whose actions and humour surrounding those actions are very predictable. In this respect, I feel like the film goes for the easiest possible laugh every time. Aladeen is a dictator so all of his gags are about belittling other races and genders, constant references to how he’s friends with other dictators, and (when the writers can’t think of anything) replacing random words with throaty Arabic noises. The leading lady Zoey (Anna Faris) is super-liberal so all of her jokes have something so do with feminism or anti-capitalism or how she doesn’t shave. Oh, and the two of them clearly fall in love because they couldn’t possibly be more different. It gets old quickly and I swear more thought is put into an episode of Two and a Half Men.
There’s nothing quite like ending a rant about easy laughs with an easy laugh.
It’s in its characters where the film departs the most from Borat and Brüno. Yes, Borat often goes for obvious “backwards foreigner” jokes and Brüno for gay jokes, but the humour largely comes not from the jokes themselves, but the fact that they are inserted in real life situations, generating real reactions from real people. Because of this inherent realness, characters in both films must give off certain human qualities in order to be believable to both the people they encounter in the film and the audience. With this believability comes opportunity for sympathy, admiration, or even relatability from the audience, but that ship sails within the first 10 minutes of The Dictator.
Not pictured: a believability ship
While the acting is naturally over the top, it is satisfactory. Baron Cohen pulls off another solid performance and generates a number of laughs from his delivery alone. Anna Faris also does a decent job as well since parodies are within her comfort zone. In fact, the film features a few big-named actors such as John C. Reilly, Megan Fox, and … Ben Kingsley? Really? SIR BEN KINGSLEY?!?!? Unfortunately, Kingsley’s recent career can be best described as a tragic fall from grace. The man became known for his amazing performances in Schindler’s List, Twelfth Night, and Ghandi and next thing we know, he’s popping up in an endless string of notoriously bad films like The Love Guru, Thunderbirds, and stuff directed by Uwe Boll. I thought he either fired his agent or got his finances in order when he gave a redeeming performance in last year’s Hugo, but then I see him in THIS and am now convinced he’ll be in absolutely anything.
In fact, catch Ben this summer in a zombie flick I’m shooting
in my backyard on an iPhone.
The Dictator’s worst enemy, however, is its marketing. I’ll admit, I initially had high hopes after the red carpet publicity stunt where Baron Cohen showed up to the Oscars in character and spilled Kim Jong-il’s ashes on Ryan Seacrest. Little did I know that any subsequent publicity such as trailers and Baron Cohen’s talk show circuit would recycle virtually all the film’s decent jokes. While I found the The Dictator’s humour to be generally obvious and at times uncomfortably tasteless, some of it can be clever. But it’s simply not funny the second time around and cannot match the hilarious irony of the fact that they spoiled all the best jokes in the film in order to convince you to go see the film itself.
Overall, The Dictator is an unfunny, unintelligent film that sadly had the potential to be the opposite. It wants to be a satire, but comes off as a dull parody that opts for predictable jokes, shallow characters, and any remaining humour is spoiled by its marketing materials. At first I thought I had simply missed the point of the movie, but now I’m not sure if there was a point to miss.
I give this a 2/5.
PS. Those of you who actually do want to see a truly hilarious satire of dictatorships, check out 1940’s The Great Dictator, starring Charlie Chaplin.