RUNNING TIME: 89 mins
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
For forty years, the North African Republic of Wadiya has been ruled by Admiral General Hafez Aladeen, a lecherous, anti-western and anti-Semetic despot who surrounds himself with female bodyguards and is working on developing nuclear weapons. After the United Nations Security Council resolves to intervene militarily, Aladeen travels to the UN Headquarters in New York to address the council. Shortly after arriving, he is kidnapped by hit-man Clayton, who has been hired by his traitorous uncle Tamir, someone whose ideas for Wadiya are different to Aladeen’s. Aladeen escapes, but not before his beard has been shaved off by Clayton, making him practically unrecognizable. He is now lost, alone, and scared in a foreign country…….
Ever since The Eleven O’Clock Show introduced a certain Ali G onto UK TV, I have been a fan of Sacha Baron Cohen, be it his skill at ‘becoming’ his characters, his interviewing of people ‘in character’ and often getting them to reveal rather more about themselves then they had intended, or the fact that I find him just so damn funny. I almost clapped when I heard about the stunt he pulled at the Oscars, showing up the ceremony for the fake, self-congratulatory crap that it is. His transition to cinema screens began uneasily with Ali G Indahouse but was definitely made up for by Borat and Bruno, the former being a film that I laughed so much at whilst at the cinema that I had to see it twice because I missed half the jokes. The Dictator seems to be a transitional film for Cohen. Both Borat and Bruno relied much on the interview element and people being set up in the process, resulting in often uneasy but very clever humour as well as sometimes exposing bigotry, racism etc. Now everyone knows who Cohen is, or more to the point knows who his characters are, he can’t really carry on doing this any more so his work now has to lose that aspect. Does The Dictator still work?
Well, my answer would be that it most certainly does, in fact I reckon that there will not be a funnier film this year. Now there is no doubt that many will find the character of a Middle Eastern dictator an entirely unsuitable subject for comedy, but my personal view is that comedy is often at its best when mocking what we fear, so I was happy to laugh at jokes about torture, repression etc [though I could have done with a couple less rape gags]. Of course, the majority of the humour in general is crude and rude in nature. Feminists, Chinese, black people, homosexuals [though interestingly no Muslims, at least not directly; Cohen isn’t that brave……or stupid]; they all get a ribbing, though for me some of the funniest stuff is just plain daft. Some of the bits that cracked me up most involve Aladeen’s stupid double, especially when he clearly hasn’t got a clue what to do when confronted with sexy willing women willing to attend to his every need. And there is also possibly the funniest masturbation scene I have ever seen.
Yes, to enjoy this film, you probably have to have a childish mind that finds things such as excrement, urine and genitals funny; for better or worse, I count myself one of those people. Perhaps there could have been a bit more diversity in the humour, and you could say Cohen goes too far at times; this is the only film I have seen where you see a mobile phone in a vagina, while there is also the best ‘severed head in a bed’ scene since The Godfather, but that’s his humour, you either ‘go with it’ or not. Many of the best comedians have gone to the edge as a way of confronting things and getting us to question why we are laughing. Cohen is of that kind. I certainly wondered if the lack of his tried and tested interview format would leave a gap in the movie, but after twenty minutes or so I didn’t miss it one bit, so packed was it with laughs.
In many way this is the most conventional of Cohen’s films; it reminded me of Coming To America at times, and it even throws in a love story. More than it, it’s a relationship that you may find yourself caring about, even if one of the participants is a nasty dictator who beheads underlings at his whim, bans a torture implement for being too ‘safe’, and considers women to be something below your average animal in value. Then again, the woman, an infuriatingly politically correct journalist called Anna, isn’t the most pleasant of people. Previously, Cohen’s films have been in part driven by his obvious liberal beliefs, with both Borat and Bruno baiting the Right, but in this film he takes an axe to extreme ‘Leftism’ too, winding up the tree hugging, immigrant hugging, vegetarian set. He also seems to poke fun at white people’s assumptions of the Middle East. Politically, the film appears to be a bit confused, which may be a factor in it not being the hit its makers wanted it to be, though attacking extremism in all its guises is fine with me!
The only time The Dictator faltered for me was a final speech, which may be a timely assault on the way both Britain and the US are now but seems a bit pat and even studio-added, though its obviously one of several things which are intended to parallel the Charlie Chaplin satire of Hitler The Great Dictator from 1940. Some have said that the film isn’t brave and confrontational enough, though I don’t know what they expect; after all, it is still supposed to be a piece of entertainment. There are certainly some scenes, like Aladeen playing a computer game where you can even kill Jewish athletes in Munich, mimicking ‘Black September’ in 1972, or him and his companion accidently scaring two other people in a helicopter by appearing to talk about bombing places, which hint at a even sharper and more daring satire than the one we get, but don’t forget Cohen is first and foremost just out to make us laugh. What I found very brave about the film though is the emotions it evokes. We probably all hate people like Aladeen, and certainly start off hating him, but as the story develops don’t we want him to succeed in regaining his title just a bit? When he is on a high cable, we want him to not fall……..don’t we?
Of course Cohen is Aladeen; I don’t know for how long he can keep his predilection for showing up for interviews etc, in character, but for me he’s still brilliant to watch; even watching him walk makes me laugh, but then again all I have to do at the moment is look at a picture of him as one of his characters and I start to crack up. As before, and just like Peter Sellers whom he reminds me of in so many ways, he reveals a gift for physical comedy that I should explore more. Inspector Clouseau anyone? I am going to admit that the first part of the film was so packed with gags from the trailer that I initially wondered if the picture would run out of steam, but it doesn’t ,and actually some of those bits are rather different takes any way. For me The Dictator is no disappointment whatsoever; it shows the funniest man on the planet right now at the top of his form, while also revealing a certain sweetness that is new but certainly not unwelcome. I loved it.