The shape-shifting scenery-chewing Sacha Baron Cohen is back, flaunting the world stage, defecating on standards of public decency and injecting his trademark brand of in-ya-face parody in The Dictator, which marks his fourth collaboration with ex-Seinfeld brains trust Larry Charles.
Charles’ first film, Masked and Anonymous, was released in 2003 but has already been lost to the sands of time, not so much forgotten as never noticed despite its surfeit of Hollywood stars. There are traces of it here in The Dictator‘s cynicism of American democracy, presented as crude draping for a quasi-dictatorship.
Cohen plays bushy-haired faux pas generator General Admiral Aladeen, dictator of a fictitious Middle Eastern country called Wadiya. He is intent on developing nuclear weapons inspired, no less, by Warner Bros. cartoons. The UN huff and puff and demand an explanation, so the inhumanely obnoxious Aladeen travels to America to huff and puff right back — only to discover he is the victim of a plot helmed by his right hand man (Ben Kingsley) to transform the country he so lovingly oppresses into a (gasp!) democracy.
Aladeen’s iconic beard is shaved off, a nod to the US’s legendary plans to destroy Castro’s facial hair, which means nobody believes he is the Dear Leader. A double — also played by Cohen — has been prepped to declare the dreaded democratic revolution. Mistaking him for an unlucky lost at sea foreigner, anti-Aladeen protestor (Anna Farris) takes pity on Aladeen and offers him a job in her vegan friendly ethnically diverse supermarket. Here the film ups the fish out of water comedy shtick with a character who already had his fins flapping about in etiquette downing oxygen.
There is more than a whiff of Borat (2006) scenting the film’s soiled sails, but Charles adjusts his comedic cross-hairs. The real Americans in Borat were exposed as dark parochial beings or prudish and/or ignorant Westerners. The Americans in The Dictator as a whole are largely the victims of politics and circumstance, unhappy with their lot for relatively sophisticated reasons.
The Dictator is the sort of film the Farrelly brothers would be making — and certainly would like to make — if they were writing edgy shock-comedy scripts and hedged their bets on a star of Cohen’s sizable calibre.
The typically crude jokes are hit and miss — though more the former than the latter — which isn’t altogether a bad thing. It adds to the film’s unpredictable tempo, which slides like a slippery bar of soap from the audience’s grasp — expect, for example, one of the weirdest (human) birth scenes ever committed to film, Charles taking visual cues from the Steve Martin dentist scene in Frank Oz’s The Little Shop of Horrors (1986).
When it shoots for the skid-marked skies The Dictator is very much cross-the-line-and-throw-up-on-it comedy, but there are smarts beneath the stains. Cohen — one of precious few character comedians just as funny off set, perhaps more-so, than on; a natural talent and a blessing for the PR team — knows all too well how to play to the lowest common denominator. Charles marries his shtick to something greater, albeit with tantalising tenuousness.
An ingenious plot development involving the fates of the many unfortunate souls Aladeen has ordered to die reveals the film’s political hand: it’s core disbelief in any kind of authority, even the most corrupt and villainous. Coupled with a terrific scene in which Aladeen implores the US to become a dictatorship — so, for example, 99% of the wealth can be controlled by 1% of the population — Larry Charles swills The Dictator with a curious blend of ideology and non-ideology. It’s a film that believes in neither democracy nor dictatorship and rallies against each, both cushioned and crippled by the properties of anarchic comedy in which nothing, absolutely nothing, is off limits.
The Dictator’s Australian theatrical release date: May 17, 2012.