After bringing the world “Ali G”, “Borat” and “Bruno”, and flirting with a serious acting career thanks to an actually impressive performance in “Hugo”, British comic Sacha Baron Cohen has been spending the past few months building an extra-cinematic mythos for his latest character creation. General Aladeen may not be quite the subtle vehicle for satire that Ali G and Borat were, but he does fundamentally still allow for the same raw nerve style comic commentary as the comedian’s former caricatures.
But there is something different about “The Dictator”: it feels from the outset like there is more of Hollywood in Baron Cohen’s latest than in any of his first three caricature projects. So can his brand of humour survive in this new context? Would the famously overblown influence of Hollywood destroy the subtle artifice of the comedian whose humour works precisely because his grotesques turn a mirror on the darker parts of mankind’s collective behaviour?
Well, unfortunately for Baron Cohen, difference does not quite have a wholly positive influence on his latest film.
The plot follows General Aladeen, a despotic dictator of the fictional land of the Republic of Wadiya, an oil rich North African state with aspirations of greatness and a shady Nuclear programme that is drawing the attention of the UN and Western civilisation. Called to give a speech to the UN in New York, Aladeen finds himself jumped by a rogue security agent (John C Reilly), and cast out onto the streets without his recognisable beard and no hope of returning to his lovingly oppressed home country. Along his lost-in-civillisation story, he meets a protesting vegan do-gooder (Anna Faris) whose influence kickstarts a typical spiritual journey as he attempts to make his way back to the UN and back home.
It is invariably a cause for concern when a trailer features too many laughs, and “The Dictator’s” showed off a little too much of the funnier content for comfort. Unfortunately, as the film played out, it became obvious that the funny parts of that trailer were the crowning glory of the film proper, and Paramount had pulled that age-old trick of showing just too much in order to imply a lot more of the finished film. To borrow a parallel from the film’s own comic vocabulary, rather than just showing its knickers, “The Dictator” went full frontal all too early and before the film even started we’d already seen it all.
“The Dictator” is not however by any means an unmitigated disaster, there are some successful comic moments and the sparse crowd in the regional premiere screening I caught it in were clearly laughing out loud at some typically Baron Cohen touches. One thing that can be said about his idiosyncratic brand of comedy is that it pulls no punches, from the opening dedication to a fallen comrade through one after another silly joke that belied the intellect of the talent behind them. Rather than subtle slow-burning comic flourishes, Baron Cohen trades in hammer blows, and it is they which were easily the finest points of his Ali G and his Borat creations.
But then, those hammer blows were always intricately intended, and they usually found a justified target – they precisely worked because his inflated, grotesque behaviour was turned against “victims” who brought it upon themselves, and made a broader comment about underlying social problems. And in The Dictator, that finesse is gone: Baron Cohen has unfortunately chosen such an outlandish subject that he has to try and shoe-horn in his wider commentary (the obligatory, and over explicit parallel of his character’s tyranny and America’s own brand of enforced “democracy”) and it is almost completely lost in the stifling Hollywood conventions and over-compensating toilet humour that will be the enduring memories of “The Dictator”.
Put plainly, in “The Dictator” we aren’t supposed to laugh at ourselves or the idiocy of our fellow man who fall for the improvised jokes, as they did in Da Ali G Show and in Borat, we’re supposed to laugh at a tyrannical despot whose comic conceit is that he is just like all of the famous despots who fill our newspapers and televised news shows only worse. It’s a completely different comic dynamic and it doesn’t quite resonate on the same levels as those other characters, and a lot of that has to go down to the influence of Hollywood on the project. For its part Hollywood seems to love Baron Cohen, taking every opportunity to show as much in the unnecessary, and mostly lewd cameos that pepper the film, as if the presence of stars like Megan Fox and Ed Norton show how game Hollywood is to laugh at itself. It doesn’t.
One thing that might have rescued The Dictator is improvisation: Baron Cohen’s comedy works best when he is unsuspected by his prey, and while that is now probably impossible thanks to his notoriety the decision to go for a full Hollywood lost-in-a-foreign-land approach is not the best answer. The additional subplots feel twee in comparison to the raunchier, naughtier bits of comedy (which are among the highlights), and most of the additional characters, including Anna Faris’ grounding love interest are little more than distractions to a degree that the primary plot is undernourished and important characters, like Sir Ben Kingsley’s disgruntled aide evaporate entirely into the background while off-putting stereotypes like Bobby Lee’s low-point Mr Lao are pushed forward.
The character of the Dictator himself is good, and Sacha Baron Cohen is very good in the lead. Yes his accent wanders all around the world during the runtime, but his comic delivery is still very sharp even in the most conventional Hollywood format he has ever taken on. There is just an imbalance in some of the script’s loftier politicised aspirations and the “lowly” rom-com foundation that doesn’t sit very well with me.
“The Dictator” would undoubtedly have worked better as a short sketch in an episodic format, with enough successful comic material to last for about ten or fifteen minutes, but in a feature film the character feels over-stretched, some of the jokes that worked first time are recycled to fill time and there are some seriously sub-par jokes that fail miserably. If the state of comedy is so desperate that a baby with a merkin has to be played for laughs, then it is perhaps time to start again from the top.
That one joke might seem pretty harmless, but it is symptomatic of a wider balance problem in The Dictator: there are obvious aspirations of intelligent political satire, played through a grotesque filter for greater effect, but there are also some perverse, even childish jokes that completely undermine those politicised intentions, and you end up scratching your head as to exactly what Baron Cohen is attempting to achieve with the film. It’s all a little too on a par with those godawul “…Movie” movies that Anna Faris was once involved in.
Additionally, there is something extremely uneasy about some of the “jokes” on show here: while I wholly understand that one of the finest ways to satirise offensive, bigoted behaviour is to hold a mirror up to it and debunk it as horribly inhuman, but there are a precise set of governing rules that stop it all from looking like a bigot pretending to hide behind satire to show their true colours. And somewhere along the way, in between making dick jokes and dictator jokes, Baron Cohen appears to have forgotten about the finesse required, and there are some very uncomfortable moments in “The Dictator” which seriously make you question what the point of the comedy is. And even if there is one at times. If the intention was to cause offence, which never appeared to be the be-all-and-end-all for the comedian up until now, then the film succeeds, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t come at a price for the rest of the film.
At the end of the day, you have to think that this is the last step for Baron Cohen’s career as a caricature led comedy actor: the intelligent satire has burned out, Hollywood amalgamation hasn’t quite worked and unless he has something serious up his sleeve, audiences are probably going to get bored if it goes on any longer. Yes, there were some good moments, and some of the comedy worked quite well, but it’s all getting a little tired now and the shift into conventional form diluted something of Baron Cohen’s usual entertainment factor.
Thank God then that he showed in Hugo that he can act: bring on that Freddie Mercury biopic, I say.
The Dictator is released to UK cinemas on Wednesday.