Dictator, The (2012)

Comedy Rated R

A missed opportunity of global proportions.

Just a year beyond the Arab Spring, a few months after the death of North Korea’s Kim Jong-il and in the midst of an ongoing revolt against Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, Sacha Baron Cohen released a comedy called The Dictator that’s mostly about … fellatio gags.

It’s not the crudeness, exactly, that I object to. Baron Cohen’s previous comedies – the outrageously graphic Borat and Bruno – both made my top-ten lists for their respective years. Incisive satires that skewered the hypocrisies and prejudices of contemporary society, they gave hope that The Dictator would do the same for geopolitics. Instead, we only get hints of it, squeezed between lots of fake beards, blithe racism and stale one-liners about paying extra for hotel Internet.

Baron Cohen plays Supreme Leader Aladeen, dictator of the fictional North African country of Wadiya. A dim-witted, juvenile playboy with nuclear aspirations, Aladeen travels to America to deliver a speech before the United Nations. A lot of plot gymnastics ensue – including a twist that would seem to allow the movie to comically comment on the immigration debate – but there isn’t a shred of cleverness or intelligence. I went in hoping for something akin to Dr. Strangelove – I hold Borat, particularly, in that high of esteem – but what I got was Jackass Goes to Washington.

Perhaps it’s simply a matter of format. Whereas Borat and Bruno were guerrilla comedies, in which Baron Cohen provoked real people into revealing their bigotry, The Dictator is make-believe from start to finish. In terms of comedy, that distinction seems lost on Baron Cohen, who is also co-writer, and Larry Charles, his regular director. Aladeen’s outrageously insensitive statements have no deeper resonance in this environment. Laughing at a fictional racist such as Aladeen is close to bigotry itself. Laughing at the actual bigots in Borat and Bruno is satire.

Even within its fictional format, however, The Dictator could have worked. In fact, a climactic scene, in which Aladeen describes the perfect dictatorship using examples drawn directly from life in contemporary America, serves as a guideline for a potential script. Each example he cites – “You could use the media to scare the people into supporting policies that are against their interests” – is ripe material for its own segment, resulting in a satire exploring the ways democracy is compromised in today’s United States.

Of course, if Baron Cohen had done all that, he probably wouldn’t have had much screen time left for lazy gay jokes.