Who is “The Dictator”?

Sacha Baron Cohen is a childish filmmaker, and I mean that in the most non-judgmental sense. His humor in movies like “Borat” and “Bruno” pushes the viewer far out of his comfort zone, almost as if he is trying to see how far he can go before he gets in trouble. The stories from the making of those films – which usually involve him and his crew narrowly escaping a physical altercation with his unsuspecting victims – confirm this perspective. But like a child, Cohen also sporadically releases a nugget of true insight, coming from a perspective so puerile it might not have been discovered by a more mature filmmaker.

If Cohen were a pure satirist, these moments of epiphany would not come as revelations. Instead, Cohen is more of a comedy anarchist, and his films would be better served by a little more focus. Take his latest, “The Dictator.” Playing General Aladeen, a cruel, anti-semitic despot from a fictional North African country, Cohen has a topic that is controversial, timely, and uncomfortable, ripe for the kind of satire that Chaplin achieved with “The Great Dictator.” But instead, he relies far too much on crude humor and throwaway gags. like when Aladeen decapitates a corpse or the POV shot from inside a woman’s uterus. Also, we probably didn’t need to see Cohen’s penis smushed against a window either. “The Dictator” has a number of good, well-earned laughs in it, but they clash badly with this infantile humor that comprises much of the film.

Don’t get me wrong: a dumb comedy can be a real joy to watch. Take “Dumb and Dumber” or “The Hangover.” But a comedy has to know what it is. The problem with “The Dictator” is that it engages that part of the brain that appreciates humor based on ideas and intellect, but that part of the brain, once engaged, has no taste for scatological humor and penis shots. Watching his films, I sense that Cohen is a cerebral filmmaker, but he hides most of his intellect behind poop jokes and male nudity.

When Cohen does aim for satire, he does not suffer from a lack of targets, going after Americans and foreigners, Muslims and Islamophobes, vegetarians and hipsters. Many of these jokes don’t land, and the ones that do don’t usually produce more than a chuckle. His targets are too easy and his satire too soft. Aladeen, for example, gets a job in a hippie co-op in Brooklyn, where he mocks his feminist boss/love interest (Anna Faris) for having too much body hair and dressing like a boy. Yawn.

Anna Faris in “The Dictator”

Many critics have compared Cohen’s brand of politically-themed humor to Chaplin or even the Marx Brothers. I think “South Park” would be a more apt comparison. That show’s creators know in order to make this particular brand of social satire work, you have to make fun of everyone. If you decide it is in poor taste to mock a certain group or individual, then your humor becomes a matter of taste, and the whole tower of filthy, offensive jokes comes crumbling down. It is both to Cohen’s credit and detriment that he follows this approach so closely. It protects him from criticism, but in a live-action feature-length film, it makes for an uneven, unsatisfying experience.

To give credit where credit is due, however, it should be noted that “The Dictator” does do a few things extraordinarily well. The best scenes by far, are the ones in which Aladeen, who is living anonymously in New York, argues with his friend, Nadal (Jason Mantzoukas), a nuclear scientist who has been exiled to America. Nadal is intelligent and rational. His frustrations with Aladeen, whose pure stupidity and ignorance of how ordinary humans interact reveal an almost charming innocence, lead to some terrific vaudevillian banter. Cohen does not usually work with other actors as equals; in “Bruno” and “Borat,” his scene partners were unsuspecting non-actors, but it’s a joy to see an actor who can provide a comedic counterpoint to Cohen’s madness.

Lastly, there is one moment that “The Dictator” gets exactly right and hints at what could have been. In front of the United Nations, Aladeen, expected to give a pro-democracy speech, reverses course and praises the virtues of dictatorship. The values that he lists sound eerily similar to those practiced by another, more familiar country. In the space of two minutes, Cohen illuminates the failures and hypocrisies of Western democracy. It is the only solid piece of political satire in the film, but it’s a damn good one. It almost feels as if this scene was conceived first, and Cohen and his creative collaborators just worked backwards from there.

As a political satire, “The Dictator” is just a middling success. There are long stretches in which it functions only as a rather uninspired fish-out-of-water comedy. But when it hits its targets, it hits them hard. Unfortunately, those moments mostly serve to remind us of the film it could have been.

My Rating: Put it on your queue

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