Sacha Baron Cohen was starting to feel a lot like Mike Myers there for a second.
You know, the guy we used to love as an inventive comedian who at some point realized there was a formula to it all that we would likely buy more often than not, and that formula was to affect a foreign accent, create a couple of catchphrases and then act like everyone already knew they were hilarious and milk them for an eternity. It doesn’t help to look like you’re laughing at your own jokes all the time – with Myers’ Wayne, cracking himself up was part of the character, but by the time we hit the Love Guru, it came off as smugness. Cohen’s promotional bits for The Dictator have certainly gotten awareness out there, but much of it has left a bad taste, from self-congratulatory trailers (look! Cohen’s giving himself a love scene with Megan Fox! Er, we mean, uh, the Dictator is so rich he can have sex with Megan Fox and that’s totally hilarious and doesn’t feel like star egomania at all) to silly stunts: did anybody other than Paramount actually care whether or not appearing on the Oscar red carpet in character was some sort of crucial fairness issue? Yeah, throwing fake ashes on Ryan Seacrest was funny, but there are other places that could be done.
With that said, thinking back – Borat‘s promotion was a little bit like that too. And I’m happy to say that like that movie, The Dictator turns out to be extremely funny. One suspects after viewing that the reason the studio promoted it as they did is that very little of what’s in there could feasibly be approved for all audiences.
Supposedly inspired by one of Saddam Hussein’s self-glorifying romance novels, The Dictator basically takes the classic Hollywood formula of a wealthy man who loses everything and becomes a fish out of water in New York City – only it’s the Butcher of Baghdad (not literally – Cohen’s character is named Admiral General Aladeen, but his combination of spoiled-brat egomania and relatively secular anti-Semitism hews closer to Saddam than any other U.S. foes recently in the news). Think Coming to America if Eddie Murphy were a murderous dickhole. That classic comedic trope where somebody working a crappy job finally gets honest with his customers? Imagine what Saddam would do. That old standby of having a non-doctor perform an emergency baby delivery? Again, ask WWSD. I don’t think anyone else has before – South Park‘s Saddam is so detached from the real one that he doesn’t quite count – so this is the movie’s strongest hook.
The problem with it as a premise for a movie is that you really can’t make an entire feature (a big-studio one, anyway) if your lead character is only slightly less detestable than Hitler, and yet you’re in danger of undercutting the film’s edge if you try to show us that a dictator has a good soul deep down (recall that prior to becoming a Youtube meme, the Hitler movie Downfall attracted controversy when it was even rumored it would paint awful Adolf as a fully realized human being rather than Satan incarnate). This is a tricky dilemma that The Dictator isn’t great about resolving. Aladeen visits New York to speak before the U.N. and resolve an international crisis, but thanks to a plot between his trusted advisor Tamir (Ben Kingsley) and a redneck-American security guard (John C. Reilly) who hates all “A-rabs,” he is kidnapped and rendered unrecognizable when his beard is shaved off. Stranded in NYC and believed dead by Tamir, he must work his way back into power before his onetime pal and his witless double (also Cohen) announce Aladeen’s nation of Wadiya as a democracy and sell off the oil rights. Still, the fact that Ben Kingsley is more ruthless than Aladeen isn’t enough to draw sympathy for our lead – in the real world, wouldn’t everybody be better off with Wadiya losing its execution-mad despot and voluntarily becoming a democracy, regardless of who gets oil monopolies?
So instead the movie tries to win us over by revealing that what we believed to be Aladeen’s villainy was actually nowhere near as bad as we realized, his malign intentions not necessarily matching actual deeds. And then we’re to believe that the love of a woman changes him – Anna Faris as a quirky, PC feminist named Zoey who runs an international food co-op and is obviously 180 degrees from what Aladeen would expect in the opposite sex (in fact, he frequently mistakes her for a boy early on). Cohen’s smart enough not to lose the character’s dark side completely, but the film only starts to feel forced when his heart is supposedly growing two sizes that day.
Still, fears that Cohen’s humor would lose its effect when taken out of the realm of reality-pranking are unfounded for now (some may remember that he originally tried scripted comedy for his characters with an Ali G movie so poorly received that it was never released theatrically here). Thankfully, he’s no Tom Green, who flailed awkwardly when he tried to transfer his shtick to script in Freddy Got Fingered (in fairness, that movie has brilliant moments…but only moments). From the terrorist Wii game Aladeen plays early on that allows him to simulate beheadings and being a terrorist at the Munich Olympics, to the way he helps Zoey save her store by running it like a mini-dictatorship, there’s still a lot to laugh uncomfortably about. The script, by Cohen, Alec Berg, David Mandel and Jeff Schaffer (all of whom, save Cohen, are, ironically, credited scribes on Mike Myers’ The Cat in the Hat), is excellent at creating funny situations and then ramping up the absurdity with each successive beat, as when Aladeen and his top nuclear scientist board a New York helicopter tour hoping to blend in, and wind up accidentally saying about as many terrorist buzzwords as possible; it’s not unlike Basil Fawlty failing to not mention the war to Germans. Similarly, a bit in which Aladeen hangs from a zipline and must figure out how to get to the other side gets increasingly, surrealistically cartoonish in wonderful ways – Looney Tunes, name-checked earlier in the film, were an obvious inspiration. And the recurring severed head gag…well, I’ve probably said too much.
Faris, so beloved of so many critics who don’t always care for her actual movies, comes through like a champ here, finally stretching beyond being a ditzy bimbo to playing a savvier type whose compassion and philosophy are both occasionally silly (she takes a feminist mime course that teaches her to simulate a literal glass ceiling) and a source of both strength and weakness – it’s debatable to what degree Zoey makes Aladeen better, but admirable that she tries…and that Faris makes us believe she is genuinely trying.
The problem most audiences will have with this film is that the majority of audiences just don’t go for movies in which the lead character is unlikable. This isn’t Borat, where anti-Semitism is a symptom of his cluelessness, and in which American racists were portrayed just as badly – this is a character whose naivete makes him a narcissistic jerk, and whose anti-Semitism, however clueless, threatens to lead to casual executions and war.
My taste in humor often runs darker, and I had a blast with just how detestable they let Aladeen be, even with the faux-redemptive bits. Hating Aladeen as a character would ultimately be as pointless as hating Trey Parker’s Kim Jong-il marionette; hating the movie because you can’t sympathize with anybody in it, however, is something many will do. Perhaps the best analog for this dictator is someone like Eric Cartman – you’d never want to know him, but you can’t stop laughing anyhow, and occasionally root for him despite your better impulses. And by “you” I mean hypothetical you, though if the statement applies, then the actual you will probably dig this film as I did.