The Dictator (2012): Movie Review
Sacha Baron Cohen has made a career of submersing himself into oblivious foreign characters whose stupidity and unfamiliarity allow him to pointedly comment on Western culture. He used this tactic to great effect with Ali G and Borat on the small screen, and Borat on the big screen. Once people got wise to his game, it must have become impossible to set up interactions with people who didn’t know what type of con Cohen was running, so he is now forced to make straight fiction with actors instead of fictional documentaries with debatably “real” people.
In The Dictator, Sacha Baron Cohen plays a buffoonish dictator of the fictional country Wadiya, but he has to satirize the United States in a real movie this time, instead of using ambush journalism. Although he appeared in public and on talk shows in character to promote The Dictator, there are no scenes of him interacting with real people in the movie. No New York liberals or Wall Street fat cats to comment on, no politicos to skewer. Instead of playing off the racist, biased, or ignorant reactions of the common man, Cohen has to rely on a script.
Considering his history, you might expect him to have conversations with political figures as the dictator Aladeen, perhaps praising the senator’s support of fascist policies or lauding the U.N. official’s acceptance of his dictator pal as they develop weapons-grade uranium for “peaceful purposes.” In this scenario, the audience can laugh at the Western policy makers for their hypocrisy, while learning a lesson about themselves. In a purely fictional film, the audience can clearly see that the stand-ins are outrageous and exaggerated, thus distancing themselves from Cohen’s point.
Aladeen is a supremely stereotypical dictator (he is his country’s best actor, athlete, and surgeon, and he pays to party with American celebrities) whose right-hand man (Ben Kingsley) wants to open the country up to democracy so he can sell Wadiya’s oil. After a failed assassination attempt on U.S. soil, Aladeen falls for the manager of a hippie grocery store (Anna Faris) who teaches him about love and acceptance. The over-the-top gags and obvious jokes (“The police here are such fascists!” “Yeah, right, and not in a good way!”) lead up to Aladeen’s ultimate commentary on America, a speech at the U.N. “Why are you guys so anti-dictators? Imagine if America was a dictatorship. You could let 1 percent of the people have all of the nation’s wealth…. You could ignore the needs of the poor for healthcare and education…. You could wiretap phones. You could torture foreign prisoners. You could have rigged elections….” And so on. The speech is so heavy-handed that it fails to be the biting social commentary it wants to be. The Dictator ends up being more Scary Movie than Borat. Although there are funny moments in the film (I especially enjoyed the Wii Sports: Terrorist Edition), the satire just isn’t as potent.