Working his way progressively through the alphabet – Ali G, Borat, Bruno – Sacha Baron Cohen’s latest performance art piece sets his sights on something other than ‘little people’s intolerances’, taking aim instead on the leaders of the not so free world. Forgoing the mockumentary format for the scripted, The Dictator can claim sporadic moments of funny, but the ultimate point of the film, the ingredient that would make it as memorable as Borat, is so slow in coming and arrives with such little fanfare that all the vagina jokes in the world can’t help prop up this comedic regime.
Admiral General Aladeen, the dictator ruler of the oil rich nation of Wadiya, spends his days and vast wealth paying A-list movie stars for strange sex acts, organising, and subsequently winning, his own Olympics and sentencing to death anyone and everyone that vexes him in the slightest of ways. When his plans to create a nuclear warhead – one that has to be pointy and that will definitely, definitely not be used on Israel – come closer to fruition, the UN steps in demanding his presence at a world summit in New York. Seeing an opportunity to increase his infamy Aladeen heads for the Big Apple only to discover how quickly his power can be removed.
Despite rarely presenting his real face, it’s difficult not to like Sacha Baron Cohen and by extension his latest creation. Objectionable as his long-held habit of cutting people’s heads off willy nilly may be, Admiral General Aladeen, aka Alison Burgers, has the same puppy dog eyes and childlike sensibilities that made Borat cheek-pinchingly lovely even when singing about Semitic murder. If director Larry Charles’ time spent on Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm taught him anything it’s that, if you want to generate a chuckle even your assholes need to be liked half the time.
This likeability is the reason why both the improvisational riffing and the set pieces work when they do. The former’s best moment found in an on-running joke as Aladeen tries in vain to create a decent pseudonym. The latter’s located in Aladeen furiously masturbating to images of American iconography coupled with a Leona Lewis soundtrack. In the little moments like these, a nice claim that one such virtue of the Western world is unapologetic onanism, The Dictator thrives. These moments, however, are few and far between.
The big question of The Dictator – aside from whether or not it’s funny – is ‘Who is the joke on?’. With the comedy as hit and miss as an Iranian stoning led by the visually impaired, the inability to answer this question other than with the response ‘corrupt dictators?’ leaves Sacha Baron Cohen’s latest a long range missile away from his earlier work. It’s not as if Ahmadinejad and friends will be shitting themselves at the prospect of a lampooning.
The ultimate sad truth is The Dictator has more in common with recent comic fare like You Don’t Mess With The Zohan than with genuine satirical treats like Dr. Strangelove. It’s potty jokes and pop culture references over edgy bite and caustic wit. But maybe that’s the point, because the broader the appeal the more people Sacha can reach with his final (subtle as a sledgehammer) monologue on the difference between our ‘correct democracy’ and theirs.
To pack theatres with audiences that simply want to poke fun at the ‘stupid Arab’ and then present said audience with a nice shiny reflection of themselves is exactly what Cohen has made his name doing. It’s just a shame that, despite the aforementioned wank gag, it takes until well after the 80th minute to get there.
Dic-less? Perhaps a little. With not much to say other than “genocidal maniacs are bad” and a coda that states “the US can be too”, Baron Cohen’s latest feels closer to an Adam Sandler film than a work by someone often described as our generation’s Peter Sellers. The over saturation of marketing stunts certainly didn’t help the appeal but politically and comedically you’ll find more to think about and laugh at during a single half hour on The Daily Show or The Colbert Report.