Thursday, 7 June 2012

Film Review: The Dictator

Certificate: 15 (strong crude and sexual content, brief male nudity, language and some violent images)
Directed By: Larry Charles
Cast: Sacha Baron Cohen, Ben Kingsley, Anna Faris, John C. Reilly, Jason Mantsoukas, Fred Melamed, Bobby Lee, Megan Fox
Budget: $65 million
Runtime: 83 minutes
Trailer: Watch

When the childish, misogynistic, torturous Admiral General Aladeen (Cohen), supreme leader of oil-producing, uranium-enriching Wadiya is summoned to the United Nations to explain his nuclear weapons programme, he sees it as the perfect opportunity to waggle his finger at self-righteous Westerners. But when his uncle and 'rightful' leader Tamir's (Kingsley) assassination attempt doesn't go to plan, Aladeen finds himself wandering the mean streets of Brooklyn with only Zoe (Faris), an ultra-liberal vegan feminist, for companionship.

With Sacha Baron Cohen now an internationally recognised face the undercover verite of Ali G, Borat and Brüno are now a thing of the past for the former incognito shit stirrer. Cohen has consequently gone back to the drawing board and created Aladeen, a murderous yet infantile tyrant, but a character framed in a traditionally scripted structure. Unwilling to completely relinquish the idea of exposing people's bizarre behaviours, Larry Charles, famed creator behind Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm, has been drafted to transfer the same comic technique here. However, putting this sheer imbecile infront of very serious UN dignitaries doesn't quite yield the same effect when reactions are scripted. Indeed, despite both Cohen and Charles' livings having been made on perceiving humanity's absurd quirks and exposing their prejudices, no attempt to translate their trade can mask how formulaic and controlled The Dictator is.

Admiral General Aladeen is the most implausible of characters. In many ways he satirises every peculiarity dictators throughout history seem to exhibit. Idi Amin for example consulted on issues with the severed heads of executed cabinet ministers, and in 1977 gave himself the grandiose title of ‘His Excellency, President for Life, Field Marshal Al Hadji Doctor Idi Amin Dada, VC, DSO, MC, Lord of All the Beasts of the Earth and Fishes of the Seas, and Conqueror of the British Empire in Africa’. Kim Jong Il (the late North Korean leader to whom this film is dedicated to) also had some funny ideas. In the late seventies he kidnapped the South Korean 'Orson Welles', imprisoning him for four years while feeding him nothing but grass in a bid to rejuvenate his country's film industry. Likewise Saddam Hussein, the man who claimed to be a descendent of the Prophet Mohammed, lived in opulent palaces that even Aladeen's garish tastes do no justice to while Gaddafi and the Admiral General quite clearly share the same tailor. And let's not mention Bin Laden, whom Aladeen has locked in his basement. But despite this persona, a patchwork 'homage' to some of history's most despicable yet strangest men, Aladeen isn't nearly as funny as he appears. His one-liners are pretty stale in this day and age, almost strained. As much as Cohen tries to recreate the 'oh no you didn't' moments which made him famous, The Dictator is unashamedly manufactured 'boundary pushing'. As controversial as it tries to be, nothing here will truly shock you. Yes, Aladeen recreates the Munich massacre on his Wii, but nothing ever really feels risque, even if supplemented by an inordinate amount of sexism and rape jokes. All this spirals around a very strange romance tale from a man who merely wants a cuddle, inviting one to think that if only the murderous bastards throughout history had been loved they might not have turned out so mean.

The Dictator is a case of old-hat culture clash and stereotypes, indiscriminately taking pot shots at ethnicities accompanied by a plethora of misogyny all disguised in the ignorance of Aladeen himself. The question ultimately posed by The Dictator is whether it is simply a crass, boorish effort (something I have no conceptual qualms over), or a genuinely tasteless, and perhaps even offensive film. The cloak of irony is one often worn by those making socially taboo jokes, and sometimes they are genuinely meant as such. The problem is that such a veil can be incredibly thin. Are we really laughing at Aladeen's 'mockery' of sexism? Well, if you say so. But can one really attest to that same shield of irony over jokes about the dictator's partiality for raping prepubescent boys who all committed suicide afterward? Certainly this 'gag' caused no ripple in the audience I sat in, but when Zoe was revealed to be living up to the feminist stereotypes of having hairy armpits you can be sure the theatre was awash in gasps of amusement and disgust. Of course one could counter that Cohen's brand of barbed humour has always been delivered with a heavy hint of mordancy, citing examples of Borat and Brüno as being no different. But there is a distinguishable distinction between those and The Dictator. While on the surface the outrageous humour might appear similar here, the audiences of Cohen's past works were laughing at something entirely different. Indeed, they were invited in on the joke, fully aware that these characters were idiots, laughing with him as he exposed the fools who took him at face value. It worked because this seemingly hapless fool would stumble around interviewing "genuine chocolate faces" who never cottoned on that Cohen was in actuality a guileful satirist. We sneered at those who revealed their own bigotry while simultaneously massaging our egos by telling ourselves we'd never fall for that. In a way it was kind of sick, but it was laughter you could emerge from guiltless. In Aladeen however Cohen isn't fooling anyone, its traditional movie structure discrediting the privilege of plausible deniability regarding our own prejudices. The 'oh, it's just a joke' line doesn't sit so easily in this format.

While its humour remains precarious the other point of note regarding all this is that given the many contemporary issues it touches upon, 'politics' was always going to rear its head. Perhaps disappointingly The Dictator only wades in to its ankles, squandering a lot of its potential political poignancy. It does flirt with such ideas, notably in its climax where Aladeen argues the benefits of dictatorship over democracy, but otherwise fails to follow through by interjecting rabble-rousing inanity into proceedings. "You could let 1% have 90% of the wealth" decrees Aladeen, painting a vision of if America were a dictatorship. "Your media would appear free but be secretly controlled by one person and his family!". Yet this joke, the sharpest in the film by far, seemed lost on the audience which might explain why The Dictator seems so reluctant to push any political point. Ironically holding the American system up to the light of scrutiny and the similarities to those regimes it decries evidently wasn't funny. But you can be sure as hell that not five-minutes before were my fellow moviegoers in hysterics at Aladeen shitting from a zip-line. And yet this little speech is what the film had been working up to; everything which preceded this moment existed merely to set up this political punchline. It takes an awfully long time to lead up to this moment, and sitting through it all isn't always enjoyable.

The Dictator never seeks to confront anything. Rather, it chooses to conflate and compound stereotypes. Yes, there is some political point in there somewhere highlighting the real reasons for the West's penchant for deposing dictators while turning a blind eye to their own foreign policy record, but Aladeen's enmity moots all this. Indeed, the adherence to farce in favour over satire almost signifies a lack of confidence in its audience. The Dictator lacks the surrealist anarchy of Cohen's earlier works. It is juvenile, ramshackle and graceless; none of which make for great raillery. After all, satire is funny because it's true. This is just absurd.


buddy2blogger said...

Nice review of the movie.

Check out my review .