First things first, this film is not to be confused with the classic piece of cinema that is Chaplin’s TheGreat Dictator, a movie that was criticizing an entirely different kind of commonly villainized leader through an entirely different style of comedy. The difference between these two film’s titles is both telling and applicable – one is great, while the other is…not so much. That though is not to say that The Dictator is a disaster, for I am just as adamant when I say that it should similarly not be confused with the likes of You Don’t Mess With The Zohan and other such recent attempts to mine humor from a Muslim out of water (or should that be the desert?).
Though it may sound hypocritical I am happy to say that while he’s no Chaplin or Wilder -though who is? – with this film Sacha Baron Cohen has proven himself capable of serving in the void of sublime silliness left vacant by the likes of Sandler, Stiller and to a lesser extent Mike Myers, artists whose outputs of late have diverged greatly from the ground that they once shared: The former went lowbrow, the latter high and the third seemingly just dissapeared from the face of the earth. There was a time when Hollywood seemed capable of making movies that were willfully stupid, dumb by design, because that was how they had fun and not as seems to be the case now, because they can do no better. It took a certain kind of wit to write something as witless as Happy Gilmore or Zoolander and that, plus a little bit of Coming to America Eddie Murphy, is what Sacha shows in his script forThe Dictator.
Yes, you heard me right, this film had a script, it’s lines were all hammered out on a desk to dim lamplight like any other movie out there; no more is his humour solely reliant on the idiocy of those that he stumbles upon while in costume, instead the film’s lines are carefully constructed to ensure that comedy ensues. It is, however, still structured somewhat like his documentaries Bruno and Borat were – Larry Charles is better known for those found footage style films than he is straight cinema and that shows in the verisimillitudious visual style of his direction – in that there are a number of skits or sequences all built around single jokes, rather than a more seamless flow of scenes; it’s almost episodic to an extent. Though of course how the jokes are delivered is sort of secondary to how they hit and on that front the film is far from a failure.
One of the strongest and most controversial elements of his previous pictures was the way in which Cohen would caustically trick the famous just as frequently as he would us normal folk and even though this film is entirely fictional the trend continues here. It seems almost ironic that Sacha would be so strongly embraced by celebrities, they are now seemingly all lining up to be lampooned in his films and this, plus the fact that they are entirely in on the joke, makes these laughs a little less riotous then they otherwise might have been. That said i didn’t dislike any of them either, their appearances rarely disrupt what stuttering flow the film already has and they do add another layer to proceedings, as does the superb set of comedians that he has cast in cameo and character roles. So I guess his star status – which is surely the reason why he had to change to scripted material – is a strength in some ways.
The other controversial element of his previous films, the subversion and social satire, is still strongly present, but it too is much harder to take seriously when the stereotypes are scripted. Every action, beat and character is based heavily on something from reality – the film is heavily researched, scoff though you might – but none of them are actually real and we can tell; so we laugh, but we don’t necessarily learn like we should. That said the speech that Sacha gives at the end of the film about all America could gain from having an egregious power structure like Wadiya’s did garner some supportive applause from the scattered audience in my cinema, so I guess that it still stuck home for some.
Really though I don’t know anyone that comes to Cohen’s films for the politics or the pranks (the marriage line and mankini are the things that Borat is best remembered for, not the Pamela Anderson stunt), it’s the gags they seek and those the film delivers. Some scenes are sillier or shallower than others – a running gag based around a severed head is a little lax after all the specific satire surrounding it – but there are more than enough laughs here to justify the ticket price. The film would have been stronger and more shocking were it his first venture and were it shot of the cuff like he is want to do, but having had most of its edges filed down simply means that the film now functions as a comforting comedy; you can sit down in the cinema and simply have a happy, silly time for two hours and not leave feeling stupider than you did coming in and finding that kind of experience these days is harder than finding a good old fashioned fascist regime I reckon.