The extent of Sacha Baron Cohen’s greatness has yet to be fully realized. Fifteen years from now, when we’re laughing at the newest shmuck who stays in character for great lengths of time, and does whatever it takes to make an ass out of himself and his subject, it’ll be important to remember where that style originated. Certainly Baron Cohen isn’t the pioneer of dress-up comedy, Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and the Marx Brothers established the style, but Baron Cohen is one of the few people who continually reinvigorates it. With vemon, no less.
I think it takes an incredibly skilled, wildly intelligent, immeasurably audacious person to do what Baron Cohen does. HBO’s Da Ali G Show is arguably the funniest program to ever air on a television screen, and his film Borat is the most hilariously eye-opening, can’t-catch-your-breath film of the 2000s. His Brüno had its moments, but proved that not all of the characters on his Ali G show could sustain a feature. And now we get The Dictator, Baron Cohen’s first fully scripted character-based feature, and his first rather serious misfire.
Baron Cohen plays General Aladeen, a purposefully hyperbolic tyrannical dictator who accepts an offer to publically address the UN in New York City. But when he’s kidnapped and groomed (the abductor’s go-to torture method for “Arabs” is to only shave their beards, apparently), Aladeen suffers a serious case of mistaken identity in the Big Apple.
Throughout his brief course to reclaim his identity (the film is less than 85 minutes, thank God) we’re “privy” to the wayward philosophies of Aladeen. How he enjoys raping (women and little boys), killing, arming himself with nukes, giving famous actresses herpes, you name it. Problem is, none of this is funny, in fact, it’s pretty goddamn boring. In all honesty, I did not laugh once (…once) during the entirety of this film. Instead, I sat dumbfounded by how flat Baron Cohen’s jokes fell. The man is my favorite living comedian, and he failed to inspire even the slightest of chuckles from me.
As is usually the case with a Baron Cohen-starring film, The Dictator is sparking polarizing views from its audience. You love it or hate it. Most of the people who hate it say they find the film offensive. I didn’t at all. A film has to matter in some small way in order to offend me. Being politically correct isn’t part of Baron Cohen’s bag of tricks, and I have no problem with that. Being entertaining, however, is something that is mildly necessary for a comedian.
Now, my respect for this man and his work needs to be made very clear. Firstly, from a filmmaking perspective, it is simply impossible to not respect Baron Cohen’s methods. Because, really, how many times is a posh, conservative white woman going to let you hold a bag of shit in her face? So, as Ali G, Borat and Brüno, every situation was hit or miss. Baron Cohen can’t afford to break character, if he did, the shot would be blown.
Secondly, I greatly admire what Baron Cohen is able to provoke from his subjects. As Borat especially, he admitted to most everyone that he was a Jew-bashing bigot, and, in turn, they admitted similar prejudices to him. It is because of this manipulative tactic that Borat, in addition to being one of the funniest movies of the decade, was also one of the most horrifying. That’s the real America right there. Or part of it, at least.
And this is precisely what The Dictator misses. Because it is scripted, everything feels forced and repeated. There’s a scene in which Aladeen curses at the NYPD for not letting him into his hotel. The whole time, I wondered if that scene was “real” or not. Were those cops, or paid actors? Did they think they were talking to some loon, or were they aware that they were talking to an actor? I’m not sure, but I do know that the film would be a lot funnier if they those cops had never heard of Sacha Baron Cohen. D