Saturday, 19 May 2012



There is surely a market for an intelligent political satire on the kind of Middle Eastern and North African supreme whackjobs whose ilk have recently been toppling like dominoes on the deck of a car ferry in a force eight gale (though this movie was conceived before the actual events). Laughing at the absurd excesses while being soberly educated about the real human beings needlessly victimised by insane tyrants; it's potentially a potent mixture. Sadly, this cops out at just about every opportunity, opting instead for the laziest of cheap laughs and calculated taboo-busting. Why go to all the trouble of a witty and elegant skewering of the excesses of power when you can do some jokes about 9/11 and wanking?

But that's what Sacha Baron Cohen does: he deliberately pushes the easiest of bad taste buttons while doing fourth-form knob and poo gags. He did it in Borat, which was rubbish apart from the opening seven minutes of amusingly (though not hilariously) scripted material, and he did it in Bruno which didn't even have the seven minutes of amusing scripted stuff at the start, and I spent much of the time in the latter wondering whether I could safely give up modern cinema entirely and do something potentially more productive instead, like learning another language, taking up watercolours or developing a crystal meth addiction.

Both films were rubbish although there was always the possibility that was mainly down to the extended use of improvisation and pseudo-documentary stunts involving real people revealing themselves to be racist or sexist idiots. But having seen The Dictator, which is wholly scripted and acted, I'm no longer sure and am starting to suspect that Sacha Baron Cohen just isn't funny. Cohen is Admiral General Aladeen, who's been the supreme despot of the North African state of Wadiya since the age of seven: he is forced to attend the United Nations in New York where the rightful heir to the Wadiyan throne (Ben Kingsley) is plotting to overthrow him so he can sell off the oil rights. Aladeen's sole ally is a vegan feminist liberal (Anna Faris) running an organic health food collective staffed with refugees and dissidents....

There's certainly some potential mileage in the story of a national leader reduced to nothing and having to get his country back from those who would destroy it. But no: let's do some near-the-knuckle gags about September 11th and Bin Laden. Let's do some gags about masturbating and urine drinking. Let's do some gags about raping children and A-list Hollywood stars getting handjobs from the Chinese delegation. Against such lame shock material, the running joke about the decapitation of a corpse and using the head as a glove puppet is the pinnacle of wit. And, incredibly, what it all amounts to is something that's significantly less funny than The Devil's Double, which wasn't even a comedy but a surprising and worrying look at the demented I-want, I-take excesses of absolute dictatorships.

Only occasionally are there moments suggesting a human being behind Aladeen, who's really little more than a stock character off a TV sketch show (much as the late Alan Coren used to write spoof Idi Amin monologues). But the human beings aren't really what Cohen is interested in: it's as if he gets bored of the potential for satire and decides to do some fourth-form smut instead. Which feels particularly out of place when the Author's Message hoves into view in the final reels - what's wrong with dictatorships? "If America was a dictatorship you could launch illegal wars when you feel like it, rig the elections, not pay your taxes and bail out your friends in the banks when they lost all the money....." At least the Aladeens, Gaddafis and Kim-Jongs of this world are honest about what they do, right? Right? And with that, time for another gag about abortions.


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