Sacha Baron Cohen is a comedy force who survives on being controversial, on the movie going public being interested in seeing just what he’ll have the gall to do next. First with Ali G (remember him?) and then with Borat and Bruno, Cohen uses an exaggerated character as a means of satirising, with often mixed results.
Under the direction of regular Larry Charles, Cohen has continued that with his latest comedy creation The Dictator, only he’s not so much satirising as he is going for the jugular. He plays Admiral General Aladeen, an outlandish dictator of a fictitious African country called the Republic of Wadiya who can’t say that he stands for free press and fair rights for women without bursting out laughing. One day he is summoned to the UN to make a speech about his supposed possession of nuclear arms but once there is kidnapped, stripped of his recognisable identity (i.e. his beard is cut off) and left to walk the streets of New York with no one knowing who he really is. He then hatches a plan to break into the hotel where the UN meeting is taking place to stop his home country from becoming a democracy, which includes working in a shop owned by a local woman (Anna Faris)
Only someone like Cohen would make something like this as few other comedians would have the guts to do so, at least in a major film. There’s something to be admired about that kind of comedic line-of-thinking, that you can portray such a character as this – which is not-so-subtly a hodgepodge of different real world dictators and stereotypes – and do so in a manner that allows you to “get away with it.”
So what it really comes down to is the comedy within such a controversial vehicle. And it’s unsurprisingly yet disappointingly a mixed bag of jokes that hit the target dead on and those which are dead in the water. The trouble is that unlike his previous two films Borat and Bruno, this is a straight up narrative feature as opposed to a “real” fish out of water story. Therefore we don’t have the (supposed) authenticity of the documentary style to fall back on when a certain joke doesn’t click. It’s very set-up punch line, set-up punch line and when it falls flat it really falls flat, some jokes being obvious long before they appear.
Having said that, in striving for controversial humour Cohen achieves that sublimely in some cases with gags that will have some choking with laughter while others are having trouble picking their jaws up off the floor – sometimes they will be one and the same. If you’re easily offended this isn’t the movie for you as Cohen doesn’t pull any punches. He covers political, silly and gross-out bases with full force even if it’s not always effective.
The story is definitely one of the weaker aspects, trying to force a weird, uncomfortable (and not in a funny way) love story into the mix with an even more uncomfortable redemptive tale about a character built up as an arrogant, homophobic tyrant. It was likely Cohen’s intention to satirise with this but that doesn’t excuse it feeling clunky and, frankly, offensive in all the wrong ways.
In the end The Dictator succeeds more than it fails thanks to jokes and set-pieces which aren’t afraid to broach controversial topics and just plain shock you (there’s a birthing scene that is beyond outrageous). Cohen’s skill at portraying outlandish characters remains truly impressive and he has delivered here a worthwhile, if flawed, slice of shock comedy.