Whilst Borat was one of the most outlandish and original comedies of recent memory, Sacha Baron Cohen’s next creation, Brüno, was little more than irritating. The Dictator, featuring Cohen’s latest persona, the tyrannical but clueless General Aladeen, takes a different direction to the previous films, opting for a more scripted story rather than the more spontaneous ‘real life’ encounters that helped Cohen carve his niche.
The Dictator is essentially a fish out of water story. After the UN gets twitchy about the nuclear weapons programme of Wadiya, the country’s egomaniacal despot, General Aladeen, is summoned to explain the actions of his nation. However, following a botched assassination, Aladeen, helped by the liberal Zoey (Anna Faris), is forced to integrate into everyday society.
Despite moving away from the usual Cohen formula, The Dictator still delivers a tirade of political incorrectness and jokes that will make you wonder whether to laugh or be outraged. There’s jibes about Arabs, women, feminist lesbians; just about everyone gets a turn in the firing line, although perhaps the most reviled of everyone is America and western culture in general.
When The Dictator is funny, it’s very funny indeed, but be prepared for more stifled chuckles than roaring belly laughs. Maybe it’s because Borat has already covered similar comedic territory, but once you’ve heard a few let’s-oppress-the-women-esque jokes, they start to become a little tired and lose their impact. After a while, the jokes also seem a little shoe-horned in and the film almost feels like a sketch show; a series of set pieces that don’t contribute anything to the story whatsoever.
However, there are attempts to diversify the styles of humour (probably to appeal to a wider audience), which does prevent the film from getting stale for too long. For every few satirical oppressed minority jibes, there’s a ‘bloke-on-a-bicycle-with-a-ladder’ style piece of slapstick. There’s definitely something for everyone to enjoy, but it does at times feel as if it’s trying to appeal to too wide an audience and therefore loses focus.
The Dictator is clearly Cohen’s attempt to break into the mainstream, and the story represents this. Behind the risque jokes, it is reasonably formulaic and nothing really comes as a huge surprise; there is definitely an element of playing it safer with this one, although the more sentimental elements to the story are handled pretty well. It’d be interesting to see how Cohen would handle a total departure from his comfort zone in the future to discover whether his talents are transferable into other genres.
If Borat is the sublime and Brüno the ridiculous, The Dictator sits somewhere in the middle. It doesn’t have the originality and freshness of the former, but is much more palatable than the latter, and arguably has more mass appeal than both. Many have compared Cohen to Peter Sellers for his character comedy, but it’s still too early to make such a comparison. The Dictator will probably do nothing to either enhance or harm his career, but his next film could well define it.
Words: Chris Thomson