All hail the Dictator! Fiendishly funny, wickedly witty and, of course, terrifyingly tasteless – the Mail's critic salutes Sacha Baron Cohen's latest comic creation
10:38 GMT, 18 May 2012
The Dictator (15)
Verdict: Comic genius!
Sacha Baron Cohen welcomed us to the world premiere of his latest film in character, as Admiral General Aladeen, a North African dictator. ‘Death to the West!’ he exclaimed benignly. ‘Hello, English devils!’
He was clearly struck by the novelty of walking a red carpet: ‘Normally when I’m on a red carpet, it’s because I beheaded someone in my living room.’
The word of mouth on this movie was far from good, and the decision not to have a national Press screening was ominous. But it wrecked all my worst expectations.
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Give that man a medal: Sacha Baron in Cohen in character as Admiral General Aladeen at the Cannes Film Festival this week
The Dictator may be the most conventionally structured of Sacha Baron Cohen’s films — it’s essentially a romcom — but to my mind it’s the funniest. It tells the story of a North African dictator who tortures and executes his people and is building weapons of mass destruction with which he hopes to obliterate Israel.
Over the course of a visit to berate the United Nations in New York, he loses his beard to a U.S. torturer (John C. Reilly), whose methods strike our hero as laughably mundane. ‘These,’ he snorts at one hideous implement, ‘are banned in Saudi Arabia for being too safe.’
When he winds up in prison, he is equally unimpressed by the lack of discipline among American prison guards: ‘They raped me in a very unprofessional way.’
The romcom element He loses his heart to a green, American Leftie with hairy armpits and a grocery co-op (Anna Faris). This causes him to re-examine his life and values, but not exactly in the ways you might imagine.
Why do I give it five stars There really are laughs galore, from the opening dedication ‘in loving memory of Kim Jong-Il’ right through to a bittersweet twist at the end.
Anyone familiar with the Baron Cohen oeuvre will know some jokes will be in bad taste. But many of them — including, dare one say it, a video game based on the mass murder of Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics — are witty as well as funny.
Red carpet tyrant: Sacha Baron Cohen, as the Dictator, arrives at the movie's world premiere in London
When we see the dictator playing so brutal and tasteless a game, it gets a laugh because it’s so much in tune with his ruthless, moronic character. But, on another level, it’s funny because it pokes fun at those who play shoot-’em-up games without a thought as to whether they are desensitising them.
The movie contains gross-out gags, but much of the script is unfashionably sophisticated. It even finds room in the final scenes for genuinely telling satire at the expense of ‘democrats’ who allow too many infringements on our liberties. This is not only a very funny film, it’s a surprisingly deft political satire. I very much doubt if there will be a more hilarious movie this year.
Of course, it won’t be for all tastes. Trendies will hate it because it doesn’t spend its time baiting the Right, as Baron Cohen’s Borat mostly did; quite a bit of The Dictator is dedicated to spoofing the knee-jerk reactions of the Left.
Also, the film is totally scripted and, therefore, not as ground-breaking stylistically as Borat was. But the days when Baron Cohen could go unrecognised are long gone. He had to change his act, and was right to do so.
The crudeness of the humour will be found offensive by some — mostly those at the conservative end of the political spectrum. If you really can’t stand jokes about childbirth, excrement and dangly bits, you should give this a miss.
Another reason why not everyone will have as positive a response as I did is that it is steeped in irony. Irony tends to do very well in Britain, Australia and New York, but meets incomprehension elsewhere, where it can easily be taken literally and found offensive.
I hesitate to delve too deeply into the subtext of a comedy, but The Dictator is much more subversive than it appears on the surface.
The curious thing about the anti-hero of the movie is you gradually warm to him, and by the end you’re almost willing him to succeed, even though you know this will be at the expense of the oppressed citizens of his home country. That, I’m sure, is intentional on the part of its makers.
The final scenes of him at the UN and back home are genuinely thought-provoking about democracy, progress and the morally distorting power of cinema.
One critic has already scoffed at the idea that this movie is comparable to Chaplin’s The Great Dictator (1940). Actually, it’s a lot more sophisticated.
Chaplin’s film was a highly understandable, deeply felt cry of rage against fascism by a Jewish film-maker, but thoroughly one-dimensional. Partly because of his Jewish background, Baron Cohen is also interested in totalitarian dictatorship, but he’s on a much higher level of political thought.
The Dictator is steeped, whether consciously or not, in the liberal ideals of Isaiah Berlin — and if you think that’s fanciful, be aware that Baron Cohen did study history at Cambridge University.
But let’s not forget this is a comedy. Baron Cohen also studied clowning in Paris, and the evidence can be seen in his mastery of physical comedy.
The film is bound to win him deserved comparisons to the late Peter Sellers. Neither actor’s career has been free of turkeys and minor disappointments, but that doesn’t mean both of them weren’t, or aren’t, comic geniuses.