Jun 22, 2012
I'm not surprised people did not run in droves to see the new Sacha Baron Cohen movie, although I understand from parsing the box office numbers that even though it was treated as a box office failure in the media, it has been accruing positive word of mouth, which is why it is still in theaters. Baron Cohen's comedy takes guts to watch. People may be afraid of sensitive terrorists taking offense and blowing up a cineplex. They might be afraid of laughing at a side of Middle Eastern culture that has not been much fun in recent history. It gives one pause. Do we really want to watch a Jew skewer insane megalomaniacal, mostly Arab, strongmen? I certainly do, but it may not be everyone's cup of tea.
Yet Baron Cohen does it winningly. There is much fun to be had watching how he simply appropriates stuff dictators do in real life: change the names of things, like Turkmenbashi, who named all the months of the year after his mother, have doubles (the Husseins), armies of women (Ghadaffi), torture and kidnap suspected enemies (Dick Cheney). He's not making anything up.
Baron Cohen is a rare comedian: equally gifted verbally, conceptually and physically. He is as gifted at sight gags as he is at extremely layered satire. The political satire is dead on, not only about Middle Eastern dictators and cultures who oppress women (he is particularly offensive about that, but it's well deserved) but also about liberal Brooklyn food coops rife with good intentions, American foreign policy and everything that is wrong with America (in a rousing, biting hypothetical speech at the UN that elicited applause from the audience). He offers a smorgasbord of different kinds of comedy, delivered with zestful glee, thanks to the sprightly, confident direction of Larry Charles. Baron Cohen can be vulgar and offensive, but he pokes fun at the right targets. This is what people who object to his excesses don't seem to understand; he aims the satire in the right direction. On a few instances, he can be vicious (as in his portrayal of a Wadiyan shepherd), yet he seems to have a ball impersonating terrible, but somehow endearing, idiots. His stupid people tend to be rather sweet. Admiral General Aladeen is a crazy, ruthless torturer, killer, and megalomaniac, so how come he is adorable? Perhaps it's his sincere enthusiasm about absolute authority. He is completely oblivious to his own insensitivity. And we find that we even have things in common with him; he is right to be furious about the usurious internet fees in hotels, after all.
The plot is flimsy and it knows it, so it zips along knowing how derivative and inane it is, and still milks itself for solid laughs by always offering a twist upon a twist, always gilding the lily for maximum comedic effect. Somehow Admiral General Aladeen ends up working in an organic food coop in Brooklyn. Baron Cohen points out that there is a whiff of the fascistic about the purity of intentions of the politically correct in a scene where owner Zoe (Anna Faris) wags her finger at the police for some perceived p.c. offense much in the way that reminds Aladeen of his dogmatic self. Which makes him fall in love with her. Takes one to know one. That Zoe employs Aladeen to run her store and he whips the place into shape is a delightful turn. After all, you need dictatorial people to make decisions and run things smoothly. The Dictator offers biting political satire: a scene where Aladeen meets his match in an American torturer (John C. Reilly), a spoof of terrorism and the American fear thereof, and he even has the balls to make the Wadiyan language an Arabic-sounding version of Hebrew, which he speaks flawlessly. There is also hilarious, spirited slapstick, some of it reminiscent of a WB cartoon, except with Aladeen playing Wile E. Coyote. And really silly jokes, which I confess are what makes me chuckle the most in his movies. I adore his silly humor.
Not everything is equally funny. A shepherd milking a human female's breasts is rather crude and unfunny. But sometimes when he is at his most vulgar, he is also at his most playful, like in the apocalyptic nude wrestling scene in Borat. There is an uproarious surprise full frontal moment that is completely unexpected and works like magic.
Does Baron Cohen take things too far? Sure. There is a sustained bit about a decapitation so deliberately offensive that it curdles the laughter in your throat, but then threads its way up to a hilariously absurd routine that ends leaving you in stitches. If you think about it, what's with the penchant for decapitations? Baron Cohen rightly points to this blood sport as a deranged fetish, the ultimate human absurdity. In short, and to stop sounding like a pretentious fart, this movie is a hoot and I think he is a comic genius. He has balls of reinforced titanium.
While one misses the daredevilry and the shock factor of his spontaneous interventions in his landmark films like Borat and Bruno, working in a scripted movie has not blunted Baron Cohen's edge. Here the bravery is in the brazenness of pulling off the concept, confidently strutting on a very tight rope of offensiveness, pointed satire, delightful mischief and even romantic comedy. He can handle it all, and he looks like he's having fun. He is truly a lord of misrule.