When approaching the films written and staring English comedian and comic actor Sacha Baron Cohen, providing commentary on the nature of offense has become the standard. Two polarising and equally unhelpful positions often result between those who find his comedy inherently offensive, because he tackles ‘taboo’ topics and cultural stereotypes along with crass bodily functions, and those who think creative types don’t have any responsibility in the way they present material. There is no doubt that Baron Cohen pushes the boundaries of taste, but to regard The Dictator as either cultural imperialism or an attack on ‘political correctness gone mad’ would be to miss that within this often irreverent and anarchic film, is a measured and subversive piece of smartly constructed comedy.
In his previous films Baron Cohen generated most of the gags and social critique by adopting larger-than-life characters and then involving unsuspecting public figures and the general public in outrageous scenarios. At their best these improvised pranks were hilarious and revealing insights into human nature. At their worst they felt cruel and too overtly designed to generate an obvious response of anger or discomfort from the unwilling participants. By making The Dictator a scripted comedy Baron Cohen could no longer rely on the element of surprise. Instead, the humour had to be calculated and planned, yet still feel fresh and spontaneous. In this regard, Baron Cohen succeeds. The Dictator is fast paced, coherent, continually inventive and frequently confronting. Most importantly it contains jokes, which is increasingly rare in an era when many comedic films are reliant on having their personality-driven cast make cultural references and say non-sequiturs to elicit chortles.
Baron Cohen plays Admiral General Aladeen, the dictator of a fictitious North African country Wadiya, who gets stuck on the streets of New York due to an identity mix-up with his idiot lookalike. The film not only avoids situating Wadiya as middle-eastern country, but it also stays clear of religion and even states that Aladeen is not an Arab, to avoid any accusation of it perpetuating stereotypes of Arabic nations. In true Baron Cohen style, the discussion of whether or not he is an Arab is instead used to mock American prejudices towards non-Americans.
The dictator lookalike subplot and a line from Aladeen about being ‘the last great dictator’ deliberately evokes Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator (1940) where Chaplin ridiculed Hitler, Mussolini, European fascism and Nazism. Like Chaplin, Baron Cohen is using comedy to undermine dictators and poisonous ideology rather than the people suffering under those tyrants. What has changed is the sensibility of the humour. While Chaplin’s film featured slapstick, sentiment and a call for humanity, Baron Cohen’s film features savage and audacious gags where nothing is sacred. A scene involving childbirth is wonderfully cringe worthy and a superb masturbation scene that uses a clip from Forest Gump (Robert Zemeckis, 1996) provides the perfect context for that ideologically noxious film.
While the level of satire of The Dictator recalls Team America: World Police (Trey Parker, 2004) to the degree that no political viewpoint or belief is safe from being derided, The Dictator feels more strategic. Team America laughed at anti-war celebrity campaigners simply because it was funny to do so, while The Dictator sends up community groups and various progressive causes to draw attention to how such movements can seem so self-righteous and ineffective against the juggernauts of capitalism and political oppression. By attacking so many targets Baron Cohen avoids coming across as politically motivated, making some of the more astute observations on global politics all the more effective. All that aside, it is also simply funny to see a racist, sexist and sadistic dictator attempt to work in a food co-op.
The element that makes The Dictator more than just a film that allows audiences to cathartically laugh at horrific ideas and attitudes, is the comparisons that Baron Cohen makes between the various recognised dictatorships around the world and the USA. The moment where Baron Cohen’s comedic genius shines is when he draws direct parallels between the way tyrannies enforce social control and the way America does (and nearly all the commentary about America can be applied to Australia as well). Naming and shaming big American oil companies comments on the hypocrisy of America’s economically driven condemnation of dictatorships, plus America’s relationship with China is also mocked. The vacuous media get a drilling in a couple of sequences recalling Being There (Hal Ashby, 1979) where two news anchors provide moronic ‘analysis’ of the erratic body language of Aladeen’s confused lookalike.
The Dictator is Baron Cohen’s most successful and consistent film to date. It is more successful than the surprising tame Four Lions (Christopher Morris, 2010) in finding humour and humanity in aspects of the modern world most people would rather not think about let alone see a comedy about. And within all this are dick and poo jokes that are puerile, revolting and funny. Audiences may come to The Dictator for the tasteless humour and enjoy the clever comedic execution, timing and writing, but they may just end up with a slightly more enlightened perspective on international politics.