What happened to Sacha Baron Cohen? When Borat was released in 2006, it seemed like we were seeing the emergence of a major new comic talent, one who was both funny and intelligent. It was one of the most insightful comedies in many years, revealing the casual racism, sexism and homophobia often found in popular culture. It was also hilarious.
Then there was Bruno, Borat’s thematically muddled companion piece that, while having a few strong moments, was ultimately over the top and disappointing. And now we have The Dictator, which is embarrassing. How could someone as smart Baron Cohen make a film like this? And why would he even want to?
Anyone expecting edgy satire from The Dictator is bound to be disappointed. Essentially, the movie is a collection of stereotypes and ‘gross-out’ gags. The stereotypes work against the attempted liberal theme and the gags aren’t funny and just made me uncomfortable. Here is a typical ‘joke’: The Dictator, Haffaz Alladeen, is delivering a baby. Being the jerk that he is, he does it while talking on his cell phone, and unthinkingly leaves it inside the woman’s uterus, which we see from a point of view shot.
In what mental hospital would this be considered funny? Are we supposed to laugh at the joke, or at the fact that Baron Cohen is being bold enough to tell it? It didn’t put me in jovial mood, that’s for sure.
Part of the problem with the picture is that Alladeen, like Bruno, is such an unlikable character that we have no sympathy for him. This makes it hard to laugh. At times, I at least felt pity for Bruno, deluded that his hedonistic goals would result in happiness, but Alladeen is such a one note megalomaniac I just wished he would get off the screen as soon as possible.
Is this movie racist against Arabs? Well, at one point Alladeen says that he is not Arab, and his country, Wadiya, is in Africa. However, he speaks with a mock Middle Eastern accent and everything, from the music to the art direction, is typical Hollywood Arabia. I am not arguing that most audiences would be dumb enough to think that this stupid comedy is an accurate representation of the Arab nations (as if they are all the same anyway), but I do question whether we needed another look at the Middle East where we see nothing but violence and corruption. The fact that Baron Cohen is not Arab is also problematic, given Hollywood’s terrible history of people of European descent playing other ethnicities. No one would have greenlighted this film if he were playing an Asian or Black character. This seems to prove that Arabs and Persians are the two groups that it’s openly okay to make fun of in today’s culture.
Finally, this is at times not even a technically competent film. The director, Larry Charles, lensed Baron Cohen’s previous two films and Bill Maher’s Religulous, all of which had documentary elements. Charles has problems working in a fiction film setting. The pacing is off (a big problem in a comedy) and the camera setups are sometimes awkward.
In the end, The Dictator is a movie that advertises as an intelligent satire, but is simply a gross-out comedy with ethnic stereotypes. You can find better things to things to do with your time, such as count the tiles on your bathroom wall.
1.0 out 4