– By Ben L.
When a movie is dedicated to the memory of the late North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, it can only be Communist propaganda or political satire.
Thankfully it’s the latter, but one that is also capable of offending just about everyone with its bag of jokes on race, gender, rape and child abuse. All can be forgiven, however, when you see actor Sacha Baron Cohen on-screen. He’s done it before, thrice in fact, and admit it – you laughed pretty hard.
The British comedian returns to the silver screen this time with a scripted film instead of the mockumentary style that gained him much fame (as well as controversy) in Borat and Bruno. It is refreshing for viewers accustomed to the previous films, but it also puts Baron Cohen’s latest experiment on the same platform as every other comedy.
In his fourth film, the actor plays the leader of fictional North African country Waladi Admiral General Hafez Aladeen, his rank already poking fun at military dictatorship. He is bent on building nuclear weapons and refuses to sell his country’s vast oil reserves to the international market, something which his deputy and uncle Tamir (Ben Kingsley) strongly disagrees with. As the UN Security Council votes in favour of military action against Waladi, Tamir devises a plan to assassinate Aladeen and replace him with a mentally-challenged double in order to democratise the country, but more importantly open up the country’s oil fields for business. Aladeen survives the hit but loses his incredibly thick beard in the process, making him unrecognisable by everyone else.
During his protests against his dethroning by Tamir and the imposter, Aladeen is mistaken for a political refugee by activist Zoey (Anna Faris) who shelters him at her grocery store. Once the great leader of his country, Aladeen is now reduced to a worker in the service industry where his ideals gradually change while plotting his return to power at the same time.
The Dictator is infused with many comedic elements which made Borat and Bruno successful, but because there is actually a somewhat coherent plot this time round, the jokes feel loosely scattered and at times awkwardly interjected. Aladeen’s failed zip-lining attempt sends a hairy shocker to a woman looking out of the window, his double milks a female bodyguard like how he would to his herd of goats, while former MADtv star Bobby Lee plays a Chinese diplomat with sexual desires of his own. These are jokes that, outrageous as they may be, are still funny but border on detracting the audience from the show itself.
This is where The Dictator seems to fall short and confuse audiences. Is it a film guided by the story or its own humor material? The romance and the attempted coup are treated briefly and casually, but one would not have expected the actor or director Larry Charles, who worked on Borat and Bruno, to stick to the plot religiously either. It’s evident that Baron Cohen intends to replicate the success of his previous films, but unfortunately the script seems to get in the way of his creativity and freedom of expression.
The film’s strongest points are the political satire and jokes on current affairs, which are much more intelligible and reward the viewer who has the slightest clue to the geopolitical climate in the Middle East. Aladeen’s battle to return to power culminates in a powerful speech which is as striking as that in Charlie Chaplin’s Great Dictator, but at the same time a double-edged expression that ridicules the problems that have beleaguered the US in recent years without attributing them to the country’s political system. He speaks before the audience that under a dictatorship, the top one-percent can control all the country’s wealth, and its leader can declare war with impunity. Sounds familiar?
Flying on a helicopter tour with two Americans, Aladeen converses with his nuclear scientist Nadal in Wadiyan with the only comprehensible words making obvious but unintended references to terrorism and 9/11, raising the suspicion and fears of the American couple. Aladeen counts down while revealing his ‘back-support’ vest which can only imply a suicide bomber to an already petrified lady. This is the other best piece of writing in the film.
Like his previous films, Baron Cohen’s The Dictator is crude and shocking, but noticeably toned down a little too. The moments where it becomes flaccid are unfortunately glaring as well. While lacking the magic which made Borat so exceptional, The Dictator still offers big laughs and prides itself in being able to ridicule both the US government and its enemies. It is a hilarious piece, but certainly not Baron Cohen’s best.