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Very few comedians have managed to bury themselves inside their creations as deftly as Sacha Baron Cohen.  The British actor first shot to notoriety on television as Staines, England’s most famous resident, Ali G.  In full character, Baron Cohen would interview some of the day’s most powerful political leaders and celebrities and the subjects’ bemusement with the boneheaded hip-hop wannabe was recorded, often with very embarrassing results.  Cohen took the deep-cover formula further with his naïve Eastern European immigrant, Borat, and flamboyant gay German television host, Brüno.  Each of his characters spawned a feature film, with Borat and Brüno employing Baron Cohen’s television premise of inserting the outrageous characters into real-life situations and interacting with unsuspecting victims.  With The Dictator, Baron Cohen once again immerses himself into a character of questionable intelligence, but steps out of the reality-based agit-comedy at which he excels to give us the story of the rise and fall of a Middle Eastern despot.

Long has been the illustrious reign of Admiral General Aladeen.  The hereditary ruler of the oil-rich country of Wadiya has governed his nation with an iron hand and reaped the rewards of a king.  Cheering crowds greet him wherever he goes -- or else.  Aladeen’s enemies - and often his friends - live in fear of even the most innocuous slight that might bring on the fatal hand gesture that will end their lives.  He can buy practically anything his heart desires, even the intimate company of the world’s biggest stars.  He owns a truly prodigious beard that is his pride and joy.  He has an array of doubles to foil the many assassination plots against him, thwarting any hope of a coup; his latest doppelganger was pressed into service straight off a goat farm.  He even has his own Olympics, where he miraculously wins every event, every time.  Choked under his tight lead, Wadiya seems exempt from any domino effect of the Arab Spring.  One thing that evades Wadiya is the approval of the United Nations, which is about to initiate sanctions against the country when it’s (correctly) suspected that Aladeen is fostering a nuclear weapons program.  In order to claim innocence and get back to bomb-making, the dictator, along with his trusted right-hand man, his uncle Tamir, enter ‘the Devil’s Nest” of New York City for Aladeen’s first visit to the West.  All the security in place around the Admiral General cannot protect him from an attack from close quarters.  A betrayal from within finds the leader shorn like a bearded Samson, stripped of his identity and lost on the streets of Manhattan to fend for himself.  A kindly political protestor discovers Aladeen after he starts a riot trying to reenter the U.N. to set matters straight.  The gender-neutral shopkeeper, Zoey, takes the foreigner under her wing, totally unsuspecting that he is the very object of the demonstration.  While Aladeen must acclimate himself to the bizarre ways of the West, back at the U.N., uncle Tamir has used the naïve double to promote a new democracy in Wadiya, stripping Aladeen of his powers and opening the country up for trade to hungry superpower nations that will pay Tamir big money to dip into Wadiya’s oil fields.  How can the leader lost in the wilds of this debauched city find his way back to his precious Wadiya to oppress and subjugate his people once more?

Sacha Baron Cohen excels at showing the world its absurdity.  There’s a lot of material to cherry-pick from in the case of real Middle East dictators.  Taking every stereotype and throwing it at the audience, Baron Cohen’s Aladeen is the very model of the excess, arrogance and utter contempt for the West that we associated so closely with Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi and Iraq’s Saddam Hussein.  In fact, the film’s inspiration was a book about a kindly oligarch written by the late Iraqi leader.  It isn’t only Middle Eastern tyrants having the mickey taken out of them; Baron Cohen takes aim at anti-Islamic racists and the overly-politically correct.  Aladeen’s employment at Zoey’s food cooperative in the middle of hipster-ridden Brooklyn shows us his views on parental discipline and his sympathy towards a pair of new parents unfortunate enough to give birth to a baby girl.  This being a Sacha Baron Cohen comedy, there’s no such thing as a taboo or boundary or a thought to good taste, so of course a lot of the humour is of over-the-top, ‘I can’t believe he went there’ variety, with at least one exposed penis and the bizarre results of the farmer double’s night with Aladeen’s voluptuous female bodyguards.

In sequences, the movie can be riotously funny.  The scenes I mentioned, as well as Aladeen’s helicopter ride with his fellow Wadiyan henchman where a pair of tourists gets a very wrong idea about the swarthy men’s intentions, are hilarious.  Aladeen’s Wall of Shame, full of Polaroids of paid sexual conquests culled from the highest echelons of Hollywood is hysterical.  What feels a bit off about The Dictator is that while those moments are great, the film as a whole doesn’t quite gel together and feels disjointed, like a group of loosely related skits.  Some of those skits work better than others, but as they are so separate the film seems to rise or fall depending on how successful each vignette is.  The constant throughout is the all-in performance of Baron Cohen as Admiral General Aladeen.  The hallmark of Baron Cohen’s comedy is that he never hedges, no matter how silly or outrageous or even physically dangerous it might be to get the laugh.  This was the case with Brüno’s trip to Israel where he was chased by a mob of rabid rabbis, threatened by a Palestinian terrorist and performed homosexual PDA in the middle of an Arkansas MMA fighting cage for an arena full of blood-thirsty, homophobic fans. 

There’s nothing particularly life-threatening for Baron Cohen in The Dictator, but he still commits to the role with the same dedication.  I only wish there had been more of a dangerous edge to the film in terms of its satire; The Dictator opens plenty of opportunities to hold up to ridicule the Western world’s recent propensity toward war in the Middle East, as well as that region’s resistance to change and modernisation.  Baron Cohen also makes a couple of well-deserved swipes at the West’s complicity in the torture of war prisoners; the exact same behaviour that we used to deride dictators like Aladeen for using.  More of that kind of intelligent, scathing wit and slightly less of the intentionally over-the-top physical comedy like Aladeen’s realisation of love for Zoey as they hold hands inside a birthing mother’s womb (shot from the baby’s POV) might’ve made for a better balance.

When compared to the excellent, ingenious Borat, or the outlandish Brüno, The Dictator is definitely the lesser of these, but one should allow that those previous two films are high standards to be measured by.  The Dictator’s timely material and Baron Cohen’s perceptive humour carry the day, with the comedian’s fearlessness still evident if not as keenly focused as it could be.  Sacha Baron Cohen is still wonderfully outrageous and The Dictator is good for more than its share of riotous laughs.

 

~ The Lady Miz Diva

May 10th, 2012

 

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Photos

(Courtesy of  Paramount Pictures)

 

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