Friday, May 25, 2012
'Dictator' delivers rude, crude satire
"The Dictator" is the latest rude and crude satire from the chameleon-like comedian Sacha Baron Cohen and, for fans of "Borat" who may have been let down by his follow-up "Bruno," the good news is this one works.
Collaborating again with director Larry Charles, Cohen has created another loud, abrasive caricature that he uses to lampoon American culture and politics. Unlike "Borat" and "Bruno," the film doesn't take the form of a mockumentary in which Cohen fools real people in a crasser version of "Candid Camera." Instead "The Dictator" is a straightforward narrative film.
It was wise to move away from the mockumentary format as the conceit was already growing stale in "Bruno" and would've been moldy and rancid in a third outing. Plus no longer having to trick real people allowed Cohen to gather a cast of cameos from big names including John C. Reilly (in a very funny torture scene) and Megan Fox.
It is worth exploring Cohen's previous characters to put "The Dictator" and his new persona Admiral General Aladeen into context.
Borat was an over-the-top version of how Americans perceive foreigners used to reveal United States' xenophobia and ignorance to the rest of the world. The film's satire was on target, and while it was perhaps over praised as a brilliant indictment of America's worst qualities, it still was often very funny and raised interesting points in the process.
Bruno was an over-the-top homosexual stereotype who is supposed to reveal people's homophobia. The film failed because Bruno's behavior was so outrageously offensive that it went beyond being about his sexuality. If a straight man acted the way Bruno did it would be just as offensive and thus it entirely undermined the point Cohen was making.
Which brings us to Aladeen, a cartoonish version of dictators like Saddam Hussein or Muammar Gaddafi. As a character he is slightly different from Borat and Bruno because in spite of the unbelievably offensive things that come out of his mouth he is oddly likable and sort of sweet.
The plot of the film has Aladeen coming to New York to address the United Nations only to be betrayed by his advisor (Ben Kingsley) and replaced by a double. Aladeen is left wandering the streets beardless and nameless. He is taken in by a health food shop owner (Anna Faris) and teams up with his former nuclear physicist (Jason Mantzoukas), who much to his surprise is alive despite being sent to execution, to regain his power.
In "The Dictator," Cohen, Charles and co-writer Alec Berg (a former "Seinfeld" writer) use Aladeen to comment on post 9/11 America. In one of the film's best and most on target scenes, a helicopter ride with a couple of American tourists leads to a hilarious misunderstanding.
The humor, as was true in his previous films, is outside of the realm of what some might call good taste. For Cohen, everything and everyone is a target, which is as it should be. Nothing should be sacred in comedy. No one can complain if everyone is made fun of and that's what Cohen does.
As a performer, Cohen can't be faulted. He commits to characters in a way that few modern comic actors do. While his films aren't always genius, as an actor he often is. He is a fearless performer.
Cohen ends the film with a speech that brings home the point of the whole film: that perhaps America really isn't any better than countries run by dictators. Is that an overstatement? Yes, but that's how satire works: you make a sweeping statement that gives pause and causes discussion and, hopefully, thoughtful debate.