For years Sacha Baron Cohen could get away with being the unknown comic infiltrator. Following acclaim for Da Ali G Show and the follow-up feature Ali G Indahouse, 2006′s Borat was propelled to worldwide box office takings of over a quarter of a billion dollars. The joy of the film was the fact it found that balance between a few carefully staged elements and complete and utter mayhem at the hands of an unwitting American public who were oblivious to the fact that it was all a joke.
Cohen tried the trick again with 2009′s Brüno, but with less success, both critically and commerically. With starring roles in Talladega Nights, Sweeney Todd and Hugo, the Brit had unwittingly become one of American comedy’s most familiar faces and could no longer perform his sabotage style of comedy on an unwitting public. So after the varying successes of his three character-based spoofs, it’s no great surprise to see him bring his new character of The Dictator to a regularly scripted feature film.
With frequent collaborator and Curb Your Enthusiasm/Seinfeld alumni Larry Charles directing and sharing a script-writing credit with Cohen once again you can get a good sense of the absurd tone of the film. Cohen’s dictator General Aladeen, ruler of the fictitious North African Republic of Wadiya is loosely based on the exploits of the ever-stylish Libyan ruler Muammar Gaddafi. The setup for the film sees Aladeen travelling to New York to address the United Nations after being threatened with sanctions after pursuing a nuclear arms development strategy. The only problem rests with his jealous uncle Tamir, played by Cohen’s Hugo co-star Ben Kingsley, who attempts to kill Aladeen and replace him with his body-double. Aladeen escapes and finds solace in the company of Anna Faris’ eco-warrior Zoe.
While we’re treated to fun cameos from John C. Reilly, Megan Fox, Fred Armisen and Chris Parnell keep things interesting but the undisputed highlight here is Faris. She’s one of Hollywood’s most gifted comic actors and yet always seems to end up brightening up terrible projects like Yogi Bear, What’s Your Number? or The House Bunny. When she gets a good role, like her part in Observe and Report, the world tends to ignore it. Such is life.
So the big question is whether The Dictator is actually funny and therefore worth shelling out for on a Friday night. And while it may sound like a cop-out, it really does depend on your perspective. Cohen’s humour is incredibly divisive and you either buy into his juvenile, crass style or you don’t, and this isn’t going to change your opinion. Personally I think he’s a very funny man and one of the best character actors working today, this film affirms that belief.
The film is really preposterous and tasteless at times, but unlike the controversy shit-storm that followed Borat no one is really going to take offence here because it’s all so damned silly. You could keep a checklist of the minority groups that are in the firing line, but really it’s better to just let it all slide and laugh it off.
But while the jokes and setups are funny and well-written and the relationship with Faris’ Zoey does reveal a little bit of heart in the film, the reality is there’s not a lot of substance to the film. Cohen and Charles are both articulate, intelligent men but they’ve taken the approach of writing a comedy film that will appeal to everyone without any pretense of political or social commentary. And in an age of films continually trying to be cleverer than they really are, that’s absolutely fine by me.
USA / Directed By: Larry Charles / Written By: Sacha Baron Cohen, Alec Berg, David Mandel, Jeff Schaffer / Starring: Sacha Baron Cohen, Anna Faris, Ben Kingsley / 83min / Comedy / Release: 11 May 2012 (Irl/UK), 16 May 2012 (US/Canada)