Friday, May 25, 2012

On the Road to Nowhere: Sacha Baron Cohen’s The Dictator

Sacha Baron Cohen stars in The Dictator

How do you top outrageous, frequently brilliant films like Borat (2006) and Bruno (2009)? British actor Sacha Baron Cohen obviously faced that dilemma with his latest movie, The Dictator. His previous two movies already demonstrated – filtered through his boorish Kazakhstani character Borat, and flamboyant gay fashion journalist Bruno – the wide canvas of ignorance, racism, rampant political correctness and anti-gay prejudices and discomfort prevalent in America and the world. Yet, particularly in Borat, it also showcased the United States as a strangely accepting society, which bent over backwards to accept Borat’s odd, even disgusting behaviour, as just something he did that should be tolerated because his were cultural acts. The fact that Borat’s anti-Semitic rants were conducted in Hebrew (Cohen, of course is Jewish) just added to the subversive nature of his movie. And his blatant attempts to outrage, in person, Islamists and Orthodox Jews alike in Bruno testified to his physical courage, to go where few comedians/actor have ever gone before. Yet he also fit into the proud pantheon of gutsy Jewish comics, from the Marx Brothers to Lenny Bruce, who, in various ways, stormed the gates of propriety to expose the hypocrisy and intolerance lying inside.

In that light, Cohen has raised expectations in terms of subject matter and approach to controversial situations and material. Those hopes for an even harder-hitting film have been dashed with The Dictator, a mostly pallid comedy that does nothing new and, in fact, copies much of what has gone before.

A homage of sorts to Charlie Chaplin’s classic The Great Dictator (1940), where a naive Jewish barber ends up doubling as the dictator’s look-alike, a thinly disguised takeoff on fascist dictator Adolf Hitler (Adenoid Hynkel in the movie), The Dictator reverses the process with the North African dictator of the fictional country Wadiya, Admiral General Hafez Aladeen (Cohen) – a cross between Muammar Gadhafi and Kim Jong-Il, complete with their cult of personality. He must impersonate an ordinary New York immigrant when he is forced out of office by his duplicitous uncle Tamir (Ben Kingsley). Taking a job at a feminist vegan collective (trust me that’s not as funny as it sounds) and slowly falling for its proprietor Zooey (Anna Faris), he schemes to get back into power and usurp the even more moronic double (also Cohen) who is pretending to be him, even as he begins to discover the nice guy lurking inside. (The other villains in the film are Chinese government officials and rapacious Western oil executives. They're not my favourite people but aren't they always the bad guys in the movies?)

Anna Faris and Sacha Baron Cohen in The Dictator
Oddly enough, in this case Cohen has been trumped by none other than Adam Sandler, whose clever, similarly-themed comedy You Don’t Mess with the Zohan (2008) postulated what would happen when an Israeli Mossad agent (Sandler), getting tired of the spy business, faked his death and ended up in New York working as a hairdresser (his ultimate dream) and falling for a Palestinian woman. The joke, in what is one of Sandler’s few worthwhile funny films, is that the Israelis and Palestinians, once settled in America and working regularly, forget their differences, at least until outsiders remind them that they’re supposed to be mortal enemies. The Dictator, despite a few timely jabs at Iran’s nuclear program (Aaldeen thinks that Iran’s president Ahmadinejad looks like a snitch on Miami Vice – one of the film’s few witty lines) and the sway of anti-Semitism, misogyny and tyranny in the Muslim world, isn’t really all that smart politically. 

That Aladeen rarely ever evokes Allah or pretends to be pious for political gain, as Saddam Hussein did, suggests that Cohen is stepping back from directly assailing religious fundamentalism and religious hypocrisy in the Muslim world. In a finale that deliberately pays tribute to the barber’s pacifist speech at the conclusion of The Great Dictator, Cohen would rather take a few, admittedly dead-on shots at U.S. imperialism and myopia instead. That speech was preachy to the extreme; Cohen’s comes a little too late, after an unfunny storyline, to make much of a comedic impression. Even ostensibly gutsy jokes like Aladeen’s video game that replicates the Munich massacre, wherein Israeli athletes were murdered at the Munich Olympics by Palestinian terrorists in 1972, is cribbed from Jonathan Kesselman’s hilarious ‘jewsploitation’ movie, The Hebrew Hammer (2003) where neo-Nazis played games like Gestapo Pool Party in one of the movie’s best over-the top scenes. Besides, if you want comedies that take sharp jabs at all sides of the political spectrum, Trey Parker and Matt Stone's Team America: World Police (2004) has already tilled that fertile soil. The Dictator’s general preference is to indulge in numerous sexual double entendres, crass jokes about bodily functions, torture and some silly banter between Aladeen and Zooey, nothing we haven’t seen before in You Don't Mess with the Zohan, or in Cohen’s earlier movies. And some of the jokes are cruel, even misogynistic for no good reason; they’re more like director Larry Charles’ work on the nasty misanthropic Curb Your Enthusiasm than from his funny, gentler approach on Seinfeld.

Sacha Baron Cohen as Borat
Cohen doesn’t even try that hard to get those weak jokes across, many of which, including the use of Hebrew as the basis of the "Arabic" being spoken in the film, are recycled from his other movies. He seems bored, even when playing the dim goat herder who is being passed off as the real Aladeen. Charles (who also helmed Cohen’s Borat and Bruno) doesn’t bring much of a flow to the movie, ironic because the semi-improvised Borat and Bruno were more cohesive than this ostensibly scripted effort. The rest of the cast, except for Jason Mantzoukas who brings a bit of life to his role as Nadal, a Wadiyan nuclear scientist just itching to build a bomb to use against Israel, is similarly lacklustre. I’ve never seen Kingsley so uninterested in a role before and, frankly, I don’t get the appeal of Faris (The House Bunny), a bland Tina Fey wanna-be.

I don’t know if Cohen – who wrote the film with three other screenwriters, Jeff Schaffer, Alec Berg and David Mandel, who also co-produced the film with him – got tired of the concept for The Dictator by the time he got around to making it, or was more focused on his upcoming role as Freddie Mercury in Stephen Frear’s and Peter Morgan’s adaptation of the life of rock group Queen’s flamboyant front man, but whatever the reason, his heart doesn’t seem to be in this movie. I trust he hasn’t lost the fire in his belly – The Dictator is a soft R movie at best – and will eventually find some new deserving target to properly and intelligently eviscerate. The Dictator, however, won’t impress anyone who’s heard of or seen Cohen’s antics, in character, on screen or off. We rightfully expect more from this guy. Better luck next time.

Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto. He teaches regular courses at Ryerson University's LIFE Institute, and is currently teaching a course on American cinema of the 70s.

No comments:

Post a Comment