A rainy afternoon, a bag of hot popcorn and a theater housing a small band of uptight moviegoers—this was how I saw Sacha Baron Cohen’s new film The Dictator. Having followed Cohen’s work since discovering Da Ali G Show in an Arizona motel almost a decade ago I find most of what he does hilarious and provocative. The film has received middling reviews (I am sure people are expecting another Borat) but Roger Ebert summed it up best by saying, “he [Cohen] establishes a claim to be the best comic filmmaker now working.” I agree. Too bad the audience I was seated with did not.
I knew I was in trouble in the first 30 seconds when Cohen and director Larry Charles (Seinfeld, Curb Your Enthusiasm) dedicate the film to Kim Jong-Il. I was the only one laughing at the absurdity. Either everybody in the audience was unaware of world events over the last twenty years or severely tense. Seriously, had anybody in the theater ever seen one of Cohen’s films? You cannot go into his movies expecting The Hangover or another banal American comedy; you go into the theater ready for a hilarious, vulgar critique of the world we live in, which is exactly what The Dictator delivers.
Aside from the crass, disgusting antics expected from Cohen, The Dictator is also a sharp critique of America. Where Borat exposes the latent racism present in America and Brüno investigates our homophobia, The Dictator works similarly, showing the parallels between what the West defines as a dictator versus our government’s own actions, asking what the differences really are. It is satire without restraints, holding a mirror up to Americans and asking them to question their own society before condemning another. This does not mean other world dictators get a free pass but Cohen draws out the parallels between America (and the West) and places like Saddam Hussein’s Iraq or North Korea, all the while recognizing there are differences between the two. It is almost like The Dictator is a satirical representation of Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman’s thesis for Manufacturing Consent.
The plot itself is rather simple: the dictator of Wadiya (a fictitious North African nation) comes to New York and is relieved of power by his closest confidants. Determined to regain control of his nation he sets off on a journey through Manhattan and Brooklyn, meets a hippie (Anna Faris) and falls in love. It is the basic fall from grace storyline but Cohen’s brand of humor and his sharp critiques are stamped throughout. Like Mike Judge’s 2006 film Idiocracy, which contains biting social commentary but a weak plotline, The Dictator is more about what the film explores rather than a dense storyline. However, do not think the uninventive trajectory of The Dictator detracts from its comedic prowess, as the countless jokes throughout the film had me in stitches for the 88 minutes it was running. Cohen is just proficient in using a simple template, exploiting it for his own whims. Hopefully you, dear reader, will experience the same pleasures I did from The Dictator and enjoy Cohen’s analysis of contemporary America.