Film Review: The Dictator

Long before Sacha Baron Cohen became renowned as Borat and then pushed boundaries even further as Bruno, he was luring notable personalities into bewildering conversations as British rapper Ali G. In every case, his comedy has always been character driven and dependent upon the ignorance of the unsuspecting interviewee and public. While the former remains true for his new movie The Dictator, with the latter, Cohen branches out for the first time, creating a strictly fictional, narrative work.

The film, which centers on a dictator from the fabricated country of Wadiya, contains outrageous slapstick comedy and implicit social commentary. Cohen’s work has always been thus, but since The Dictator is a movie in the truest sense, using established actors acting out staged scenes, the social commentary begins to fall by the wayside in favor of sillier elements that garner laughs. Cohen’s social perceptions are sharp, and his criticism of systems of government foreign and domestic ring true. In this regard, the film is worthy of note in the avenues of both politics and comedy.

As per usual for Baron Cohen’s movies, The Dictator was preceded by one of the most pervasive marketing campaigns of the year, including Internet and television advertising galore, as well as an appearance on Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show the week of the movie’s release. That appearance proved to be particularly funny. It is these kinds of peripheral press and publicity stunts that make Baron Cohen’s characters so memorable and affecting; they transcend the screen and enter our real lives. But in The Dictator, we are further distant that ever before, and when fictional dictator Admiral General Shabazz Aladeen freaks out a couple in a helicopter by pantomiming crashing his Porche 911, it loses its punch since the wide-eyed tourists are actors.

The film really doesn’t make its strongest point until the final few minutes, when Baron Cohen’s character delivers a naïve speech detailing the practices of a dictatorship that clearly describes the contemporary American political structure. Up until then, there are a few laughs, but no enough to constitute a full-length film.  The same points might have been made in a single ten-minute segment of one of Baron Cohen’s TV episodes.

Sacha Baron Cohen is a performer and comedian unlike any other, as he continually forces us to face our own prejudices and ignorance. He continues this trend with The Dictator, but the affect is less immediate and lacks the power and raw comedy that made his earlier work profound.

About author
Bryan Parker is a writer and photographer living and working in Austin, TX. He is the founder of blog Pop Press International and print journal True Sincerity and recently released his first book, a volume on Beat Happening in the 33 1/3 series.

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