• Film & TV •
• The Arts •
16 May 2012 (UK)
Sacha Baron Cohen, the Cambridge University alumnus famous for his cast of ridiculous and risqué characters, has released The Dictator (Paramount Pictures, 2012), another slapstick, politically incorrect – and, this time, easily forgettable – film. During production, Paramount released a statement saying that the film was based on a novel by Saddam Hussein, Zabibah and the King (2000), apparently in an effort to draw Muammar Gadaffi’s attention (Gadaffi then had yet to be deposed and killed) away from its mockery of his dictatorial habits. They feared his response could come in the form of a terrorist attack. Despite these fears, the New York Times nobly took it upon themselves to prove that Saddam Hussein’s (most likely ghostwritten) novel was not in fact the basis for Baron Cohen’s work. I find this debacle more amusing than much of the film’s content, which doesn’t speak well for The Dictator’s comic power. In keeping with this feeling, it is only during the occasional moments in the film when Baron Cohen attacks the US – both its home government and foreign policy – that the potential brilliance of his satire shines through. Unfortunately, these moments are infrequent.
It would be fair to say that Baron Cohen has experienced a drop in popularity over the last few years. His satirical Channel 4 series, Da Ali G Show – which was shortly followed by the feature-length blockbuster, Ali G Indahouse (2002) – enjoyed high degrees of success, and Baron Cohen’s second character-based series (and subsequent film), Borat (2006), only increased his reputation for deadly social commentary, political incorrectness, and hilarious slapstick. Baron Cohen’s third film, Bruno (2009), enjoyed significantly less success than the previous two – and though funny and provocative enough, Baron Cohen’s latest offering confirms that what might have been a dip is now a confirmed decline.
Baron Cohen’s comic style in The Dictator is extremely similar to previous efforts, though he has moved back into the realm of fiction, departing from the mockumentary style of the last two films. His favourite recipe – take a cast of stereotypes and intensify them past cringe to the point of shock – is faithfully employed throughout. But Baron Cohen’s target, this time dictators (the film’s opening image is of Kim Jong-il, to whom we are told the piece is dedicated), comes a year too late: the Husseins and Gaddafis no longer dominate headlines in the West. In the light of the Arab revolutions and the extraordinarily complex social and political situations emerging across these geographical areas, Baron Cohen’s simplified stereotypes fall flat. It is perhaps not surprising then, if a little disappointing, that The Dictator retreats to the safety of New York City. The majority of the film follows General Aladeen (the titular dictator, played by Baron Cohen), as he finds himself lost in Manhattan, helped by political exiles he himself drove out and by an unsuspecting young American hippy (whose radicalism becomes yet another source for dissatisfyingly simple stereotyping).
The reason this film fails is that its targets aren’t explicit enough. Ostensibly, Baron Cohen seeks to satirize both the dictator and the New York radical, but he fails to explore them fully, producing a series of jokes that feel too easy. The film seeks to escape this by pushing these stereotypes to the point of ridiculousness, so that we move from disappointment to shock without the intervening humour. The film’s satirical strengths lie instead in its critiques of US, and more broadly, Western, representations of dictators, a critique that speaks more widely to Orientalist stereotypes. The film’s richest comical moments are when the satire tackles the hypocrisy of Western governments, who speak democracy and freedom but practise exactly the opposite. If these targets were more clearly articulated, The Dictator could have been a great film, using comedy to produce a brutally satirical political commentary. Instead, it feels hollow. Though good for an hour and a half’s giggle, The Dictator will remain lost in the shadows of Baron Cohen’s earlier characters, whom he may have to resurrect if he is to rediscover the full potential of his comic profession.
Dominic Davies is reading for a DPhil in English Literature at St Anne’s College, Oxford. He is a senior editor at the Oxonian Review.