On the face of it, Sacha Baron Cohen might seem to be hoeing the same row this time round but by other means. Once more, a funny foreigner with unpalatable attitudes is let loose on the Land of the Free. Like Borat and Brüno before him, Aladeen parades bigotry to risque but comic effect. You might have thought that the shift from real-world interactivity to intensively scripted narrative would simply have added a bit of precision and gloss to the same underlying routine. Not so. The Dictator is a completely different proposition from its star’s last two big-screen vehicles.
Weird though they may have been, Aladeen’s two predecessors each evinced a disturbing trace of plausibility. The Admiral-General, on the other hand, is a stuffed dummy. His combination of brutish innocence and inner loneliness belongs wholly to the world of knockabout. The Americans he rubs up against aren’t subtly sculpted improvements on their real-life counterparts in the earlier films. From CIA torturer to feminist eco-nut, they’re the rankest of caricatures. As a result, the clash of outlooks that takes place is as mechanical as the film’s inane romcom subplot.
No matter though, as this time the real business lies elsewhere. Pride of place goes to witty but inconsequential banter, smart quips and gross-out sexual and scatological farce. It’s all startlingly conventional, formulaic and derivative. It’s also soundly plotted, physically inventive and full of good gags. There’s plenty here to amuse, but don’t expect satire.
Assad and Kim Jong-un have nothing to fear from this comforting exercise. Nor does anyone else. Potential targets ranging from eco-nazism and cultural relativism to racial profiling and conflict-zone profiteering are referenced, only to be indulgently side-stepped. Only once does the film really acknowledge the import of its subject matter.
In a right-on set-piece bolted on at the end, Aladeen urges Americans to abandon democracy. Under a dictatorship, they could enjoy the benefits of inequality, emasculated media, rigged elections etc etc. Gosh, guess what, they do already! Compare the vacuity of this with the oratorical climax of Chaplin’s The Great Dictator to remind yourself that comedy needn’t turn its back on reality.
Or consider Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan. This film didn’t soothe audiences by inviting them to laugh yet again at reassuring figures of fun. It unsettled and challenged. The point wasn’t that a central Asian troglodyte should be good for an easy laugh. The character was a device to pick at the awkwardly unacknowledged intolerance not just of mainstream Americans but of filmgoers themselves.
By persuading members of Tucson’s Country West club to sing along to “Throw the Jew down the Well” Borat appears to expose their anti-Semitism. Filmgoers are invited to feel moral superiority over these benighted rednecks; maybe, however, this warm glow provides them with cover for an anti-Semitic impulse of their own. Disconcertingly, by the end of the performance the clubbers’ compliance looks more like good-hearted countryfolks’ politeness towards a stranger far from home than ill-will towards anyone. Is it the cinema audience’s prejudice against white Arizona that’s really being laid bare? Or perhaps its penchant for knee-jerk censure, which may or may not hide a touch of complicity with those it’s supposedly censuring?
Such questions don’t just lend moral resonance. The edginess they supply injects a kind of humour beyond the reach of the panto antics of The Dictator. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with feelgood if unchallenging entertainment. Others, however, can provide that. Baron Cohen used to offer us something altogether distinctive.
The reason for his retreat from the edge isn’t entirely clear. We can’t ask him, since he doesn’t like doing interviews as himself, preferring to hide behind whichever character he’s playing at the time. He did say why he killed Borat: the character, he announced, had become so familiar he’d no longer fool anyone. But then he came up with Brüno. It’s hard to believe that this time he couldn’t have settled upon something a bit more ambitious than a reversion to the method he tested to destruction a decade ago with Ali G Indahouse.
The Dictator is of course providing Baron Cohen with his first real taste of full-scale Hollywood stardom. It would be sad to think he’s sold out for the big bucks, and, heaven forbid, popularity. Still, if he were to deign to address us, he could argue that he’s paid his dues. The real-people mockumentary process must have been not only exhausting but also sometimes dangerous, both legally and physically.
Baron Cohen is now 40, married with two kids, and an established member of the Hollywood elite. If he so chooses, he can settle down to domesticating his past practices, acting in other people’s movies and polishing his gongs. Good luck to him. For what we received in his heyday, we can only give thanks.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010
Seit 1996 bin ich freier Mitarbeiter der Salzgitter-Zeitung, als Experte für das Geschehen im hiesigen Kreisfußball. Daneben sind meine Kolumnen seit 2005 fester Bestandteil im Lokalteil der Salzgitter-Zeitung. Zusammen mit Frau und Tochter sowie zwei gefräßigen wie faulen Stubentigern versuche ich das zu meistern, was das Leben, das Universum und der ganze Rest an Absurditäten für uns bereithalten.