From catchphrases to kingdoms: A review of “The Dictator” with an eye on cinema history

Sasha Baron Cohen has, in a way, become one of the most recognizable names in comedy, right next to Judd Apatow, Paul Feig and Todd Phillips. Going from “Da Ali G Show” to the generation defining “Borat” and the less successful and memorable “Bruno,” Cohen defined the confrontational, single camera, in your face stylings that would go onto help to define the single camera sitcom, found footage films and reality television inspired media of all sorts.

“The Dictator” is his first shot at really creating a fully constructed, scripted and self coherent film without depending on the reactions of unwitting pseudo-extras. In my eyes, it was a necessary evil. What people remember the most about “Borat” was watching people rapidly make a fool out of themselves when faced with a camera and a foreigner. We weren’t laughing at the camera, we were laughing at our own unfettered national id.

Cohen didn’t quite have the same ability to do that in a scripted film. He can’t depend on characters who were little more tha a reflection of established stereotypes and norms. He would have to create a world for them to occupy and other characters to react off of them.

“The Dictator” tries desperately to do this, often to little success. While Cohen’s creation, the depraved Gaddafi stand in, Admiral General Aladeen is an ingenious character, someone the audience always wants to hear more from as he tastelessly goes through the motions of slaughtering his underlings, hiring and firing body doubles and callously insulting every race he comes across. He’s a buffoonish idiot savant, another character in the Groucho Marxian tradition who thinks he’s the smartest guy in the room, only to be trounced again and again by his own baffling ignorance.

“The Dictators” borrows much from the Marx Brothers’ “Duck Soup” and even more from Kubrick’s “Dr. Strangelove,” both following foolish men who cling to the disastrous power that they couldn’t possibly be qualified to wield. That being said, “The Dictator” is nowhere near as ambitious or funny as the aforementioned films. Unlike the Marx Brothers, Cohen is interested in creating something of a searing criticism of democracy and foreign economic interests and unlike Kubrick, he’s not quite smart enough to balance the comedy and satire. “The Dictator” throws a lot at the screen at once, hoping that the low brow hits just as hard and as often as the only slightly more informed political jokes.

By no means is Cohen aiming for a satire of “In The Loop” or the more recent “Veep” style seriousness. His wheelhouse has always been in near cartoonish antics mixed with damn-near-vaudeville-minstrelsy levels of ironic self distancing racism. All of Cohen’s movies have fallen into a genre I hope to further define called Smart-Movies-For-Dumb-People, the main members of which are “Fight Club,” “Freddy Got Fingered” and every Christopher Nolan movie that isn’t “Following” or “Batman Begins”. These are the kind of movies that people like because they feel smart for understanding them. The films are usually just challenging enough that nearly everyone walks away from them understanding exactly what they need to and are visually compelling enough to attract a mass audience. I’m not saying these movies are bad, I’m just saying that their aims are never for art or directorial finesse. They’re just strictly commercial products and many of them succeed as such.

And that’s the real problem with “The Dictator.” When it isn’t including scenes of Cohen shitting on women, smashing his penis against windows, milking women like they’re cows or arrogantly and hilariously insulting everyone he comes across, he’s making ham fisted political jokes about how America may as well be a dictatorship and that democracy is uniquely flawed. It’s a formulaic crowd pleaser that never strays to far from what audiences expect, even if it meets those often chuckle worthy expectations.