Movie of the week: The Dictator

After his live-ammo situationist spoofs Borat and Brüno, Sacha Baron Cohen has returned to straight fiction-features with his broad comedy satire The Dictator.

This is not, repeat not, a cinephile homage to Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator. It is less edgy than Baron Cohen’s previous two films, featuring big, conventionally contrived gags and a colossal central turn from the man himself.

The Dictator is set to make Peter Sellers’s Inspector Clouseau a model of subtlety and sensitivity. The movie is in the fish-out-of-water tradition of Coming to America and many others. It doesn’t, in truth, offer much of a twist on the genre. It does, however, deliver laughs and weapons-grade offensiveness.

Baron Cohen plays General Aladeen, the bizarre ruler of the oil-rich North African rogue state Wadiya: he is a satirical version of the Saddams and Gaddafis, those tin-pot tyrants whose natural cruelty and vanity was nurtured by the West while they were maintained as allies to keep other states in line — or repurposed as bogeymen to be deposed when the need arose.

A confrontation with Washington looms after General Aladeen announces Wadiya is just months away from enriching uranium, and he corpses and giggles uncontrollably when trying to claim this was for “clean energy purposes”.

An invasion threat from the United States forces him to make a state visit to New York to explain himself to the United Nations and, like Borat before him, Aladeen finds himself stunned in various ways by the strange, exotic world of New York City hotels.

Yet a duplicitous relative (Ben Kingsley) has a treasonous plan, and the general finds himself anonymous and penniless on the Manhattan streets. He  becomes dependent on the charity of a feminist vegetarian café manager (Anna Faris), who comes to his rescue like Jamie Lee Curtis does for Dan Aykroyd in Trading Places.

Subtle it isn’t. The satirical content in The Dictator is lower than in Borat, apart from one Michael-Mooreish speech in which Aladeen begs the US to become a dictatorship. Basically this is a firework display of bad taste, and I was often reminded of the cheerfully reprehensible Kentucky Fried Movie in the 1970s, a film unashamedly low in nutritional value. But it was very funny, and so is this.

The Dictator isn’t going to win awards and it isn’t as hip as Borat. Big, goofy, outrageous laughs are what it has to offer. — © Guardian News & Media 2012

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Peter Bradshaw
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