The Dictator - Insult comedy of the highest orderMay 16, 2012 @ 8:00 am (Updated: 11:08 am - 5/16/12 )
Sacha Baron Cohen has been very aggressive in his
promotional campaign for "The Dictator." Remember when
Cohen, in character as the dictator, "accidentally"
spilled ashes on Ryan Seacrest on the Oscars red carpet?
All part of a stunt, of course, to raise the profile of
his new movie in which he plays the leader of a fictional
north African country, Wadiya.
So blatant was Cohen's grab for publicity that a suspicion arose that his new film might be a bomb. Opinion pieces started proclaiming "We're so over Sacha Baron Cohen." The forces seemed to be aligning against "The Dictator."
But surprise, surprise. The Dictator is funny. Very, very funny. The reason that's such a welcome surprise is that Cohen completely abandons his traditional guerilla- style tactics. He's made a fortune in his other films documenting real people's reactions to his fictional characters (Borat, a dimwit from Kazahkstan, and Bruno, a flaming and insufferable Austrian fashionista.) Instead, The Dictator is an entirely scripted film with real actors ( Ben Kingsley, Anna Faris, John C. Reilly, and others.) There's an actual storyline, with a narrative arc. Cohen even works in a romantic comedy component, although the romcom is patently absurd (although, come to think of it, not much more absurd than most Hollywood romcoms.)
Cohen's dictator is General Admiral Haffaz Aladeen, a brutal Middle Eastern leader reminiscent of Saddam Hussein or Colonel Khadafy. He's a full-on racist, anti-Semite, misogynist and megalomaniac. He murders people on a whim. And yes, in case you've forgotten, this is a comedy.
How is this funny? Well, first of all, his evil nature is so outrageous one can't help but laugh. For instance, his favorite videogame is the Munich Olympics massacre and he loves a Wii game called Beheadings.
The film also mocks the absurdity of any dictator's supreme power of decision-making. General Aladeen, for instance, decides to replace certain words, like "positive" and "negative," with his own name, "aladeen." This leads to major confusion in the doctor's office when a patient is given a diagnosis of "HIV aladeen."
Most of the laughs come when Aladeen visits the United States and, through a series of screw-ups, loses his identity to an imposter and has to plot how to wrest back power while incognito in America. By having to work undercover, Aladeen is forced to deal with people in a way most supreme dictators aren't used to. Let's just say, civility does not come naturally to him.
The dictator is obviously the butt of most all the jokes. But cleverly, Cohen sometimes gets us on the dictator's side, like when Aladeen rails against hotel minibars and the outrageous prices charged for hotel internet service. And when he takes up with a radical vegan feminist political activist, sure, his jokes at her expense are mean-spirited but her views are extreme enough to justify at least a little mockery. This is insult comedy at its best because it cuts both ways.
Overall, The Dictator is politically incorrect with a point. It's full of low-brow humor and vulgarity but it's also smart and knowing satire. As the dictator might put it, it's very, very aladeen.
By TOM TANGNEY
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