Sacha Baron Cohen is no stranger to the absurd. After three progressively ridiculous films, Ali G Indahouse, Borat and Bruno, all of which were based on characters from his HBO program, Da Ali G Show, it’s clear the man has no limit. He’ll go anywhere and everywhere if it means he’ll get a laugh, even if that means pushing the boundaries beyond what many would deem tasteful. What those people fail to see, however, is the biting satire hiding beneath its immature and offensive veneer. His show as well as his films (Ali G Indahouse notwithstanding) have displayed unimaginable examples of racism, homophobia, religious bigotry and more through a mockumentary style where the camera is turned on us, exposing the more hateful thoughts some of us manage to disgracefully conjure up. His latest film, The Dictator, abandons that mockumentary style and, transitively, much of its satirical bite. Save for a few inspired moments, The Dictator is more absurd comedy than social commentary, but it’s one that is undeniably funny, right on par with 21 Jump Street as the funniest movie of the year.
The tagline for The Dictator reads as such: “The heroic story of a dictator who risks his life to ensure that democracy would never come to the country he so lovingly oppressed.” If you find humor in that sentence, this movie is right up your alley—no further convincing should be needed—but I’ll continue on for those who want a bit more background. Baron Cohen plays Admiral General Aladeen, the dictator of the fictional North African country of Wadiya. He’s in the process of creating nuclear weapons, which the United Nations isn’t too happy about. In response, they demand he address them regarding his plans for the weapons, so he heads off to America. However, his backstabbing advisor, Tamir (Ben Kingsley) has plans of his own and orders to have him killed. After escaping his seemingly inevitable death (now without a beard—his single most defining trait), he learns of a double being used to eventually sign a constitution that will bring democracy to Wadiya. He can’t let that happen, so he begins working at a hippie, left wing shop run by a feminist named Zoey (Anna Faris) that is catering the event in the hopes of infiltrating it, taking back his rightful place as dictator and assuring his people don’t receive democratic freedom.
It’s understandable to bring some hesitance into a viewing of The Dictator. One of the main reasons Baron Cohen’s two best films are so good is due to their approach. They followed only the most thinly mapped out stories and allowed the comedy to surface not so much based on Cohen’s presence, but more so on the reaction of the unwitting participants to what he was actually doing. The same can be said for the satire, as shocking and disgusting as some of it may have been. By throwing himself into precarious situations that yielded interesting (and sometimes dangerous) results, Cohen was able to point out flaws in our actions and beliefs. Leaving all that behind could have led to a movie that felt too safe, one that stuck too closely to a script and didn’t allow his sensational improvisational skills to shine, but such is not the case. The Dictator doesn’t necessarily feel scripted—the string of events in this movie are so bizarre, they feel more like random happenstances—and the ad-libbing remains intact. The narrative dialogue that must be said for the story to progress is never prominent enough to overshadow some of the film’s on-the-spot vocal concoctions.
Whether Admiral General Aladeen is learning the joys of self pleasure or giving a speech about what’s possible in a dictatorship, (of which all were done in the democratic America), the end result is almost always hilarious. What disappoints the most about The Dictator isn’t that the expected commentary isn’t there, but rather that it tries to be there, but isn’t fleshed out enough to work. It occasionally brings forth the wretchedness of many people’s discriminatory behavior, but those themes were explored more thoughtfully in his previous films. Although a spoof on dictators and dictatorships in general, it too fails to make any real point about them, instead only pointing out the obvious, like the superiority complexes that can rightfully be assigned to any dictator. Not every movie has to include an enlightening take on a particular subject—leaving it out is just fine if you have a technical prowess behind the production—but including it and failing is something worth addressing. That unfortunately happens here.
Still, The Dictator delivers on the laughs so frequently that you don’t miss the commentary that was featured so prominently in Borat and Bruno. Sacha Baron Cohen is once again fearless with his performance, proving he’s a force to be reckoned with in the comedic world and the soundtrack, which is full of Middle Eastern renditions of popular American songs like Dr. Dre’s “The Next Episode,” is so offensive you can’t help but laugh at it. I may never look at Forrest Gump the same way ever again, but that’s a small price to pay to laugh as much as I did while watching The Dictator.
The Dictator receives 4/5