Film of the Week: We Aren’t Laughing About the Same Thing: Sacha Baron Cohen and ‘The Dictator’

Sacha Baron Cohen has always had a complicated relationship with race. Making a name in television with his cult program Da Ali G Show (2000-04) and in theaters with his megahit Borat (2006), the writer/producer/comedian rose to popularity with a unique shtick that involved him accosting real-life individuals as he performed his exaggerated racial caricatures. Pushing his subjects (or were they victims?) to their tolerance thresholds through unbearable awkwardness, Cohen became a master at duping the common man into revealing his own prejudices, which were thinly veiled under a façade of political correctness. Now a publically recognizable figure, Cohen has retired this guerrilla tactic of satire in his most recent work, The Dictator (2012), favoring instead a more conventional, scripted approach. To many, Cohen’s guerrilla comedy was always a crutch. As it turns out, it’s one he’s helpless without.

Lampooning modern-day despots like Saddam Hussein, Muammar Gaddafi, and Kim Jong-il (in whose memory the film is dedicated), Cohen plays the flamboyant and dimwitted ruler of the fictional North African Republic of Wadiya, Admiral General Aladeen. As the supreme leader of the oil-rich country, Aladeen splits his time between business (developing nuclear weapons with mandatory pointy tops and ordering political opponents to their deaths) and pleasure (engaging in paid sex with celeb sexpots Megan Fox and Oprah Winfrey and being paraded around in caravans of solid gold Hummers). Forced to leave his hilariously opulent palace for New York after a United Nations embargo is levied against Wadiya, Aladeen’s life is thrown into disarray after surviving an assassination attempt orchestrated by his resentful uncle, and rightful heir to the Wadiyan throne (Ben Kingsley), who employs a doppelgänger to sign a democratic constitution in order to sell the nation’s oil reserves. Left without his trademark beard, Aladeen is forced to navigate the dictator-unfriendly streets of New York with only eco-friendly super liberal Zoey (Anna Farris) serving as an ally. Employed by Zoey’s co-op, Aladeen strives to thwart the constitutional signing in order to protect his country from the terrors of democracy.

As has been the case with most of Cohen’s work, the clown prince of tongue-in-cheek bigotry rarely offends with precision, more often spraying his antagonism around indiscriminately in order to score laughs. The Dictator is no exception to this rule. Shining in its first thirty minutes, The Dictator is best when reflecting the inherent ridiculousness of modern fascists, who celebrate their ruthless subjugation over their subjects with the most garish of luxuries.

Targeting such a group for a shared supremist ideology would be worthy enough of satire, but Cohen routinely expands his fields of offense to include not just some Middle Eastern leaders, but their uneducated citizens, language, and traditions. As if this racially-centered humor weren’t enough to satiate him, Cohen feels to the need to attack the Chinese, blacks, and liberals as well.

While this pervasive offensiveness served as the highlight of Cohen’s more successful work such as Borat, the lack of interaction with a the real-life counterpart, the most vital ingredient in Cohen’s comedy, detracts from his desired effect. Cohen’s earlier efforts functioned like boxing matches with punch-drunk opponents. He would simply dance around the ring knowing that racist America would eventually begin to pummel itself in the face, handing him the victory in the process. In this way, he would illuminate dormant truths about our own repressed racism, hidden in feigned tolerance, which could then be changed. Without real-life counterparts, though, Cohen is now forced for the first time to enter into a direct comedic relationship with his audience without the benefit of a middleman. Controlling all the content, Cohen responded to this challenge with blatant, unironic racism and fear towards anyone not part of an imagined norm. Rather than exposing common prejudices, Cohen endeavored to perpetuate new ones, thereby exposing the fact that his enjoyment lies in the indulgence in racism rather than the edification of it. Clearly, all along Cohen was laughing at a different joke than his audience.

In truth, Cohen’s work has always been a fragile affair, relying entirely on his success garnering laughs to validate his incendiary humor (and to great success). In The Dictator, these laughs dry up quickly.  Clearly lacking cleverness or inspiration, Cohen often resorts to the grotesque, including having Aladeen defecate on unsuspecting pedestrian’s heads while suspended between two buildings with exposed genitals. In addition, Cohen overplays woefully unfunny gags like the Dictator’s habit of sending unwitting pawns to their deaths with a simple “cutting throat” gesture, rollicking fun with a severed head and the confusion that ensues from having the majority of words named after him (even conflicting ones). Playing away from his strengths for improvisation, Cohen only ad-libs with Jason Mantzoukas (playing Aladeen’s weapons scientist), who together comprise the worst on-screen duo this side of Dustin Hoffman and Warren Beatty in Ishtar (1987).

In its controversy, The Dictator is classic Cohen (which doesn’t seem to mean the same thing that it used to). By trying to replicate his success with Borat, Cohen has simply replicated the same tired formula, which, like most copies of copies, proves a faded simulacrum. In losing grip on what audiences liked about him, Cohen may be using up his last ounce of relevance.

With a Prince and the Pauper (1881) theme and a rousing final speech (in which he draws parallels between American politics and despotism), Cohen frequently invokes 1940’s The Great Dictator (wherein Charlie Chaplin famously parodied Adolf Hitler). Unlike Chaplin, though, Cohen fails to engage his audience on any emotional level, making it feel like it’s watching an angry, prejudiced man spewing his hatred in the guise of satire. While Cohen has always been known firstly as dead funny and secondly as obscenely offensive, this balance has begun to shift.

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