Violence, potential or realized – that’s what gave Sacha Baron Cohen’s previous films, Borat and Bruno, their special frisson. How far could Baron Cohen go, “disguised” first as a callow Kazakh journalist, then as a gay Austrian fashionista, in tweaking the various targets of his mockumentaries before he found himself in true harm’s way?
Yeah, there was something sick in the man’s kamikaze courageousness and our willingness to watch his frictioneering. But what the heck? Here, it seemed, was a comedian keen to give new meaning to the expression “ anything for a laugh,” to be transgressive up to and perhaps past the point of “till death do I part.”
Which is why Baron Cohen’s latest film, The Dictator, opening today, has to be considered something of a retreat and therefore a disappointment. It’s a retreat into the tradition and the conventions of political satire, à la Chaplin’s The Great Dictator and Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, at a time when real-world events too often supersede the satirical impulse and render it as biting as a senior’s denture-less gums. Where’s the audacity in playing, as Baron Cohen does, a character tightly based on Libya’s Colonel Moammar Gadhafi? The deposed Libyan leader was, after all, his own best lampoon – a decidedly murderous one whose own bloody demise was captured on smart phones, fittingly enough, before Kathryn Bigelow got the film rights, and quickly beamed to the rest of the world. Even the man’s reported last words – “What did I do to you?” – can’t be bested by any screenwriter.
Had Baron Cohen been true to the ethos and esprit of Borat and Bruno, he would have ditched the Chaplin riff and instead crafted a lightning rod of a character who would have travelled to, say, Tahrir Square or downtown Tripoli or the 9/11 site in Lower Manhattan and let the wild rumpus begin. That Baron Cohen would have been killed had he actually done so goes without saying, but at least he’d have been consistent.
What we get instead with The Dictator is the spectacle of a liberal, British, Jewish comic playing a reactionary Arab despot/buffoon in brown face and talking “funny.” And there’s nothing terribly new or funny about that. Al Jolson (born Asa Yoelson) did a variation on it 85 years ago in The Jazz Singer. Canadian Victor (Reel Injun) Jory did it pretty much for his entire film career. And Ashton Kutcher gave it a try only a couple of weeks ago, playing Raj, a randy South Asian shilling for popchips, to much bleating.
Will the Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee raise a fuss? It’s tricky. Baron Cohen can always argue that his Admiral General Aladeen isn’t rooted in racial or religious caricature but specific to an especially odious military dictator who was despised, then deposed by his own people. Moreover, will Americans even rouse themselves for a debate? While Baron Cohen has always been an equal-opportunity offender wielding the big shtick, this time he’s working terrain – the post-9/11 Muslim world – that, as a movie phenomenon, serious and funny, Americans have never embraced. Indeed, if The Dictator does go boffo at the box office, its success may have less to do with the film’s satirical flourishes – it was George Kaufman who famously said, “Satire is what closes Saturday night” – than with Baron Cohen’s gusto with the gross-out.