At the beginning of the year, Hugo was nominated for a ton of Oscars, later going on to take pretty much every technical award the Academy could offer (totally screwing over Tree of Life in the process, not that I’m still bitter about that or anything). Sacha Baron Cohen was of course invited to attend — he did play a central role in Hugo, after all — but only on the condition that he didn’t use the opportunity to promote his upcoming film, The Dictator. In response, Baron Cohen got into character and made this video.
So the Academy buckled and Sacha Baron Cohen stepped out onto the red carpet in full costume and character as Admiral General Aladeen. He then proceeded to splash Ryan Seacrest with what he claimed were the ashes of Kim Jong Il (“Now when you’re asked ‘Who are you wearing?’ you will say ‘Kim Jong Il!'”).
Aladeen appeared on live TV yet again a few months later, promoting The Dictator on Saturday Night Live’s Weekend Update. And yes, that really was Martin Scorsese giving a positive review of the film under torture. I confess that one had me scratching my head until I remembered who directed Baron Cohen in Hugo.
Then, just a couple of days ago, this happened.
Say what you will about Sacha Baron Cohen, but there’s no denying that he knows how to market a film. Moreover, he commits to his characters with more ferocity than anyone this side of “The Colbert Report.” Finally, I’ll grant that Baron Cohen has something that all great comedians need: A total lack of shame and fear. He’s a guy who will go to whatever shocking length is necessary to get a laugh, dignity and common decency be damned.
However, The Dictator lacks something absolutely essential for any satirist: A point.
See, the film’s “plot” (note how indiscreetly I use the term) begins when Aladeen is called to testify in front of the UN under threat of military action. Aladeen is enriching weapons-grade uranium, you see. And no, the story point that his country of Wadiya is securing nuclear weapons is not remotely important.
Anyway, Aladeen arrives in New York only to find that his top adviser (Tamir, played by Ben Kingsley) has hired an assassin to kill him. Instead of getting murdered, Aladeen only loses his beard and gets away to find an impostor (Baron Cohen again, natch) in his place. Through the impostor, Tamir hopes to draft a new Wadiyan constitution that will supposedly turn Wadiya into a free republic while granting huge fortunes in oil sales to China, Russia, etc. Oh, that’s right: Aladeen has made it a point to never sell Wadiya’s oil abroad for any reason. Hell if I know why.
So now Aladeen must preserve his dictatorship by stopping the new constitution from getting signed. Through reasons too contrived and lengthy to recap here, the now-unrecognizable Aladeen must get into the constitution’s signing by way of Zoe (played by Anna Faris), a parody of a politically-correct, “bleeding heart,” hippie liberal. Also, she’s the love interest of the film.
To recap, our main players are:
- A bigoted lunatic war criminal eager to regain power,
- A traitorous jackass ready to sell his people out for oil profits, and
- An idiotic and unfunny parody of a hippy.
Who exactly am I supposed to root for here? More importantly, who is the movie siding with? What’s the point?
To be clear, I can forgive Aladeen for being an over-the-top racist douchebag. He is, after all, a parody of such power-mad dictators as Kim Jong Il, Saddam Hussein, Muammar Ghaddafi, etc. There’s simply no other way to parody something that’s already so ridiculous except to go big or go home.
The problem is that the film (and the marketing of the film, for that matter) try to establish Aladeen in a real-world context. We’re supposed to suspend disbelief and pretend that Wadiya is a real place, Aladeen is an actual genocidal tyrant, and the UN acts against him in the same way that they treat his crazy ilk. When the movie shows footage of President Obama talking about Kim Jong Il, we’re meant to believe that he’s talking about Aladeen.
In theory, this is a great idea. In practice, it’s like the filmmakers completely forgot about this idea fifteen minutes in and put every character in the movie on crazy pills. Zoe is a liberal caricature, John C. Reilly plays a conservative caricature, and the film employs news anchors who would be considered too stupid to work at Fox News (that last part is not a statement I make lightly). Not only does this entirely ruin the potentially hilarious contrast between Aladeen and the relatively sensible world around him, but it makes the filmmakers look as if they’re insulting everyone within arm’s reach without any rhyme or reason. Again, what’s the point?
…Okay, I’ll admit that there is a teeny bit of a point in this movie. During the climax, Aladeen gives a huge speech about how we need only look into a mirror if we want to find dictatorships. A lot of his points ring disturbingly true in this post-“Occupy Wall Street” age, and it’s a perfectly relevant point. But then Aladeen has to ruin the moment with a forced bit of sappiness, in addition to a sudden face-turn that’s totally invalidated by the next (last) five minutes.
See, the plot is set up in such a way that Aladeen has to learn how to live without his power and to realize just what a dick he is. The problem is that such a development would rob this one-joke premise of its one joke. The result is that the movie tries to pretend like Aladeen is growing as a character, even though he’s truthfully an entitled racist jackoff from start to finish. The film tries to make us sympathize with this larger-than-life genocidal idiot, which is a Herculean task that needed more effort than what’s shown here.
Oh, and while we’re on the subject: One of Aladeen’s critical moments of development is when he first learns how to masturbate. It’s a huge sequence, with Baron Cohen’s O-face set to inspirational music and intercut with majestic images. You’ve been warned.
To be fair, there are quite a few jokes and sequences that work. My favorite example is a discussion between Aladeen and O’Reilly’s character on the finer points of torture. Another highlight comes when Aladeen goes on a helicopter tour with a fellow Wadiyan and two American tourists. The two Wadiyans are transparently disguised as two other American tourists. I won’t bother explaining how we got to this point. The important thing is that during the tour, Aladeen and his comrade start talking about Osama bin Laden in their native North African tongue. The result is a comical misunderstanding that gets them mistaken for terrorists.
It would have been a very funny scene. Except that in just the scene prior, Aladeen and his comrade agree to keep their profile low. They make a goal out of acting inconspicuous and not attracting attention to themselves. Yet here they are, not thirty seconds later, talking in a Middle Eastern dialect and acting like they’re going to crash the helicopter into the Empire State Building. It doesn’t make any lick of sense. Then again, if you’ve been reading carefully, you’ve probably noticed that this film has no problem eschewing logic for humor.
By and large, the comedy in this film works entirely by way of brute force. The jokes in this film are so creatively demented, so over-the-top crass, and so aggressively shocking that the only sane responses would be to walk out of the theater or bust up laughing. It also doesn’t help that the jokes are all drawn out to such a painful degree that there’s no relief.
Also, here’s something to consider: The film makes it clear that Aladeen is an only child. Though we see that he has a ton of sexual encounters, there’s never even the implication that he has kids. I point this out because Saddam Hussein had five (possibly six) kids, one brother, and three half-brothers. Osama bin Laden had 12 siblings of some kind or another, and he fathered anywhere between 20 and 26 kids. This could potentially be a gold mine for story points, character development, and comedy. But the film totally disregarded it. I know I’m supposed to review the film we got instead of the film I wished we got, but missing an opportunity that freaking huge is just inexcusable.
Basically, watching The Dictator felt like getting tickled continuously while being strapped to a table for an hour and a half. The laughter was mostly involuntary and I felt more pain than anything else. The plot is totally flimsy, the characters are all stupid, and there doesn’t seem to be any kind of socio-political agenda. The jokes are all extremely, incredibly, outlandishly crass, yet there’s no satirical bite to the humor. Without some point to make, the humor is just tasteless for the sake of it.
It’s still good enough that I can suggest a rental if you’re curious. If you’re looking for something else to watch at the multiplexes this weekend, keep looking.