Having made a name for himself in the late 1990s as part of The 9 O’clock News team and latterly with his own show, Sacha Baron Cohen’s list of characters have each gone on to star in their own self-titled films. Starting with Ali G in Da House, which was an irreverent and fictional look at youth culture at the time. The phenomenally successful Borat followed and then Bruno, which both put this fictional characters in the real world, interacting with real people and Cohen’s vicious satirical side really came to the surface and so did the controversy.
The Dictator (very loosely based on Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator) introduces the world to another creation but goes back to the Ali G format of a fictional narrative. Admiral General Aladeen (Cohen) is the dictator of the fictional African Republic of Wadiya, rich from massive oil reserves. He is summoned to a meeting of UN representatives in New York City, but is kidnapped by a mercenary (John C. Reilly) and replaced by the rightful heir to the throne Tamir (Ben Kingsley). Tamir uses one of Aladeen’s body doubles as a puppet and plans to announce a democracy in Wadiya so that he can sell off the oil fields and become rich. Aladeen meets a vegetarian feminist called Zoey (Anna Faris) and sets about plotting how to take back his power.
As you’d expect from a Cohen written and performed character, The Dictator has moments of outrage and indecency. It’s not as close-to-the-bone as Borat or Bruno, but there is plenty of political satire in among the feces and genital gags. It’s odd seeing such an explosively offensive character placed within the confines of a by-the-numbers ˜fish out of water’ romantic comedy, but somehow Cohen’s sheer force of will makes it work.
Like Coming to America, a lot of the humour in The Dictator comes from Aladeen’s inability to grasp simple Western culture and his treatment of women, black people, Jews and really anyone who isn’t him is as hilarious as it is uncomfortable. There is a running gag about execution that just gets funnier each time, while his custom Wii games revolving around the Jewish athletes at the Munich Games are likely to offend many. Like all great satirists though he is able to simultaneously offend everyone to avoid being branded racist or sexist by the more moderate audiences.
The best scene is probably his take on Chaplin’s now famous address of the audience, although he plays it for laughs and keeps it in narrative context. When speaking to the UN he lists reasons why being the dictator of a country is a good thing and all of these points will hit home for those capable of seeing the truth in the way the world is run. But like the rest of the film, The Dictator then drifts back into juvenile jokes that not only drag horribly, but worse still temper the true edge that he has shown in the past.
If taken purely as a comedy intending to make people laugh The Dictator is a triumph. Brief glimpses of very intelligent comment belie a script that is clearly aimed at a broader audience than one might have hoped. But in The Dictator’s Aladeen himself, the film has found a character worthy of praise in a film that is a welcome addition to Sacha Baron Cohen’s growing list of self-created characters who can make us laugh and feel guilty all at the same time.