The Dictator is a different species for comedy-actor Sacha Baron Cohen, as it is an actual film, rather than a mockumentary like his previous works, Borat and Brüno. Instead of relying on pedestrian reactions, Cohen’s dictator is created in a world where there is a screenplay, actors, and many, many planned out one-liners sure to stir the pot of controversy. The film has already been banned in two counties, both Tajikistan and Turkmenistan, but I doubt they will be very discouraged.
Of course one can’t not compare this work of farce with The Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup, about the small and corrupt country of Freedonia being ran further into the ground by the incompetence of their newly elected leader, Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho Marx). Both The Dictator and Duck Soup punctuate different eras of film, one were crudeness and foul language was feared, and one where it was embraced and the “fine line” of when something goes too far simply doesn’t exist. Not to mention, both do a splendid job of including some sharp satire on our societies then and now.
Sacha Baron Cohen, the brilliant satirist that he is and truly one of the most versatile and brave comedians working today, plays Admiral General Hafez Aladeen, the antisemitic, anti-woman, anti-democratic ruler of North African Republic of Wadiya who has served a term lasting over forty years. His mission is a simple one; never allow democracy to enter the land of Wadiya and have his people live under a fierce and unapologetic dictatorship.
After being kidnapped by a hit-man (Reilly) and being betrayed by his uncle Tamir (Kingsley), Aladeen is quickly swapped with a decoy who looks exactly like him so the government can force him to declare Wadiya a democratic country so they can quickly open up their oil fields for business and make a boatload of profit. Aladeen manages to escape from the hit-man, but after his beard is wholly shaven off rendering him as unrecognizable. He eventually stumbles into the clutches of green activist Zoey (Farris) and is soon employed at her eco-friendly market as a cashier.
Cohen is ecstatic and cheerfully cynical as Aladeen, although this is quite possibly his weakest picture. When The Dictator is funny, it truly is funny, but when it’s not, it hits the ground hard with some scenes. Quite possibly the worst scene takes place in the green market, where Aladeen is forced to assist a woman helplessly lying on the floor with the delivery of her baby. The film tries to evoke an emotional bonding between Aladeen and Zoey, but it comes off as ignominiously unnecessary and awkward.
Now ostensibly, this seems like an inept racist film, incapable of humor, comedy, or wittiness. What works is the harsh truth of the source material. It seems Cohen wanted to go down the road of being shockingly irreverent and undisciplined, but have his crude and shameless film wrap around and conclude with an eye-opening lecture. His final speech, without a doubt, rings truer now more than ever, and is up there with Joel Murray’s frequent monologues in God Bless America for best speeches of the year.
I will admit that many viewers will be instantly turned off or disgusted with the subject matter, much like why Brüno underperformed at the box office and Borat has now been viewed as mean-spirited schlock. Each one of Cohen’s films has explored a topic that is touchy and instantly brews controversy, from stereotyping, xenophobia, homosexuality, and finally, varying political agendas. I have a feeling his work will go on to be even more cherished as years descend into new ones, and certain topics and disputes will have eventually simmered. Soon they will serve as time capsules for America’s touching naivety towards difference. Not only is Cohen to be commended for his work as Aladeen, but director Larry Charles, who also worked on both of Cohen’s previous works, Bill Maher’s wonderful documentary Religulous, and even several episodes of Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm, has made yet another winner and is continuing his streak for great films, one after another.
Despite a few marginally dry sequences and some unnecessarily tasteless scenes, The Dictator is, so far, one of the most impressive comedic exercises of the year.
Starring: Sacha Baron Cohen, Anna Faris, Ben Kingsley, and John C. Reilly. Directed by: Larry Charles.