Reviewing The Dictator in the New Yorker, David Denby writes that if Sacha Baron Cohen could only fine-tune his craft he could be the Groucho Marx of our time. If we were to judge him on the basis of Borat and Brüno, that daring duo of mockumentaries which duped people into thinking they were talking to someone as bigoted, ignorant or shallow as they were, there would be a case to answer. But that was before his latest effort, in which his craft has changed entirely. And now, after this crass, forced and foolish excuse of a movie that brings out all that was previously bad about Baron Cohen, his status as genius-comedian of our generation ends up being the only laugh on offer.
The core problem was somewhat inevitable: his biggest laughs had always played upon the fact that he was the only actor on screen. But now, due to fame and the nature of the new role, that style of filmmaking has become impossible. Hence his resort to scripting everything, conning noone, wheeling out rom-com and New York clichés and thereby reversing the jokes so they’re only on him.
Cohen, as Aladeen, is a fusion of the absurdities of Gaddafi and the Kims playing tyrant over a fictional African state. We see him discuss Bin Laden and his Porsche 911 in Arabic whilst on a helicopter trip over Manhattan, to the obvious fright of two American tourists. But whereas in past situations their reactions were sincere, now it’s staged. What real people might do or say is removed from the equation. And with faux-danger inevitably comes faux-fun: Cohen grinding out staged repulsion from his costars, strutting around his constructed world.
As always, there’s the crass jokes about sex that he apparently feels obliged to balance with his sharper, ‘higher’ political points, if only to ‘offend’ and fulfil the needs of his wage-paying mega-audience. Objectification of women? Check. Masturbation? Of course. Jokes about pubic hair? Why even bother playing bingo? These have been occurrences in his work right back to the Ali G Show (apparently the prejudices of white wanna-be Gs from Staines map onto the attitudes of Kazakhstani journalists, Austrian fashionistas and totalitarians nigh-perfectly). But at least they were always the exception. Here, with nothing left to say about the life of a tyrant after ten minutes of exhausting the caricature through parody, those old tricks become the basis for the entire damn film.
I mean, please. When he ends up making friends with and falling for a hippie vegan anti-armpit-shaving bi-Brooklynite, the epitome of everything he slags off except Judaism (but don’t worry, the end needs one more bad and easy joke, so that box is also ticked by her later), you know he’s given up on surprising us.
But what should we have expected when Cohen decided to turn his satirical teeth towards a laughable Libyan loony with virgin guards? Overthrown and killed after months of public madness, it’s hard to agree that Muammar was in need of 80 minutes of mockery to destroy his otherwise revered image. And when that is the context for a film that is 90% horseshit, the few later elements of slapstick worthy of Groucho are by then unbearable anyway.
Take a break, Sacha. Get your brains back.
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Tags: borat, bruno, david denby, new yorker, sacha baron cohen, the dictator