The democracy of laughter – The Dictator review

The Dictator – Starring Sacha Baron Cohen, Anna Faris, and Jason Mantzoukas. Directed by Larry Charles. Rated MA. By Simon Miraudo.

The democratic process is alive and well in every cinema screening The Dictator, and in every home where it will play from now until the end of time (or, until all entertainment is replaced by automated, personalised singing competitions streamed directly into our brain; whatever comes first). Has star, co-writer, and creative head Sacha Baron Cohen gone too far? Has his shtick worn out its welcome? Is director Larry Charles able to transition his subject’s sensibilities from the realm of prankery and into a scripted narrative opposite actors who are similarly in on the joke? These are questions that are answered with involuntary, guttural reactions: laughs. It’s true that we sometimes succumb to movies that are perhaps undeserving of our undulating hoos and has; movies that traffic in gags so cheap they give you change. But laughter never lies, and just like in a real democracy, sometimes the undeserving gets the majority of votes. It may not be an ideal system, but dammit, it’s the best system we’ve got.

The Dictator marks Baron Cohen’s first film featuring a new comic creation, and not one that debuted on his Ali G show (such as the eponymous Ali G, as well as foreign correspondents Borat Sagdiyev and Bruno Gehard). As Admiral General Aladeen of North African nation Wadiya, he rules over his poverty-stricken citizens with an iron fist from his gargantuan palace, hires Hollywood actresses like Megan Fox to make sex with him, orders the execution of any underlings that anger him, denounce him, or accidentally block his passage in a stairwell, and passes time by playing a Wii game that simulates the 1972 Munich Olympics massacre. Life is good.

Aladeen is the least complete character in the notorious comedian’s wheelhouse; think a mean-spirited Borat with a slightly better grasp of English. What he lacks in realisation, Baron Cohen makes up with chutzpah. There is nary an awkward or horrifying scenario he won’t subject himself to, and, despite the lack of fearless japery as seen in Borat and Bruno, The Dictator has its fair share of gleefully embarrassing, shudder-inspiring moments.

The Admiral General travels to New York, where his right-hand man (Ben Kingsley) arranges for his assassination. An American spook (John C. Reilly, in a brief cameo) kidnaps Aladeen and shaves his beard before accidentally letting him escape. Meanwhile, a dim-witted double takes his place; a former goat-herder who will sign a new constitution for Wadiya and allow foreign oil interests into the country. He will also milk the female members of the royal harem, because, well, it’s a mildly amusing visual image and the bar here is set fairly low. The deposed despot hatches a plan to reclaim the throne with his old (and thought to be dead) expatriated nuclear scientist Nadal (Jason Mantzoukas, as Baron Cohen’s best foil yet). The charms of an ultra-liberal feminist greengrocer who caters to people of “all or no” sexes proves a distraction though, and inspires Aladeen to become a kinder, gentler tyrant. The grocer, Zoe, is played by the effortlessly hilarious Anna Faris, and her presence here is welcome and warm; it serves best as a reminder that she deserves to have the same power to craft starring vehicles as her male colleague is afforded today.

The aforementioned Wii sight gag gave me pause; made me wonder if perhaps a line had been crossed. What’s most troubling however is that it was the only moment in the movie to raise that question in me, and surely a more successful satire would inspire that doubt at nearly every turn. Granting a few barbs shot in the direction of the United States and their spotty cultural and political track record, The Dictator is hardly as ferocious or jaw-dropping as Baron Cohen and Charles’ previous collaborations. But, being unfunny is a far greater crime than being offensive, and, for better or worse, it’s rarely both. Any boundary-pushing is mostly of a gross-out nature. I chuckled more often than I didn’t. Like with so many elections – the kind yearned for by the residents of Wadiya – we submit our vote and state our preference somewhat begrudgingly. The Dictator ain’t great, but it’ll do.


Check out Simon’s other reviews here.

The Dictator arrives in Australian cinemas May 17, 2012.

One Response to “The democracy of laughter – The Dictator review”

  1. Sacha Baron Cohen was good in Sweeney Todd, great in Hugo,, but I will never watch him in this. He is talented, but wastes it in crap movies.

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