The Dictator (2012)
Director: Larry Charles
Cast: Sacha Baron Cohen, Anna Faris, Ben Kingsley
Synopsis: The heroic story of a dictator who risks his life to ensure that democracy would never come to the country he so lovingly oppressed.
Sacha Baron Cohen’s first movie after working through his pre-existing cast of characters was always going to be something of an acid test, and it’s perhaps inevitable that The Dictator doesn’t measure up to the likes of Borat or Ali G. The movie isn’t helped by the fact that he can’t seem to decide whether he’s making a gross-out comedy or a political satire, which means the tone is too variable to really satisfy. It’s also difficult to turn a despot who holds life so cheaply into a character for whom the audience will root, no matter how buffoonish he might be. And when viewed from a distance, most real-life Middle-Eastern dictators were buffoonish, anyway…
Admiral General Aladeen (Cohen) is the dictator of the North African Republic of Wadiya. Having inherited control of the country from his fater at the age of 7, Aladeen is afflicted by a major case of arrested development. He lives in an obscenely over-the-top palace and is surrounded by female bodyguards who guard him during the day and, when he hasn’t paid a Western celebrity to sleep with him, service his needs at night. Wadiya is rich in oil, but Aladeen refuses to trade with the rest of the world and is working on developing nuclear weapons, an exercise which has invited the condemnation of the United Nations. When the UN’s Security Council decides to send in the troops, Aladeen travels to New York with his Uncle Tamir (Ben Kingsley — Schindler’s List, Ender’s Game) to smooth things over. However, Tamir plans to overthrow Aladeen and instate a double in his place, and arranges for his nephew to be abducted by a hitman named Clayton (John C. Reilly). However, Aladeen escapes after Clayton accidentally sets himself ablaze, and, with the unwitting help of tree-hugging Zoey (Anna Faris — Frequently Asked Questions About Time Travel) sets about restoring himself to his rightful position.
As with most movies which fill their time with a relentless barrage of gags, The Dictator is pretty hit and miss. The gross-out gags are largely miss, to be honest. In fact, I think I might be all grossed out; I’ve become desensitised by more than a decade of movies whose sole reason for existence is to elicit a reaction of revulsion from me. It worked early on, but I think every conceivable gross-out angle has more or less been covered which means that filmmakers are trying that much harder to come up with something funny and fresh. But as everyone knows, when it comes to making people laugh the harder you try the more likely you are to fail…
In his guise as Borat, Cohen has an unfailing knack for identifying and exploiting the prejudices of ‘ordinary’ people, and highlights those prejudices in a way that makes his targets appear extraordinarily foolish. In The Dictator, he widens his aim in an attempt to expose the hypocrisy of Governments and the transparency of their political ideologies. He might appear to be poking fun at those old half-mad tin-pot dictators — and doesn’t their wholesale downfall make this movie look old before its time? — but his real target is those ‘enlightened’ Western governments who use the convenient cloak of democracy to disguise their use of the very practices for which they condemn Middle East republics. This is directly addressed in the ironic speech in which Aladeen tries to sell dictatorship to the UN Security Council after foiling Tamir’s plan to depose him, and for that brief moment the quality of writing of which Cohen and his cohorts are capable comes shining through. Unfortunately, that one moment of comparatively subtle cleverness exposes just how much the rest of The Dictator is lacking in inspiration.