Saturday 15 December 2012

On DVD: "The Dictator"

So here's Sacha Baron Cohen's latest creation: General Aladeen, sabre-rattling leader of the North African republic of Wadiya. You may already be familiar with the type, but The Dictator opens with a helpful dedication to the late Kim Jong-Il and namedrops Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Muammar Gaddafi within its opening twenty minutes, lest anyone be unsure. The plot of Larry Charles' brisk, 79-minute romp sees Aladeen betrayed by his right-hand man (Ben Kingsley, continuing the late-career switch into comedy initiated by The Love Guru) after being summoned to the UN to answer charges of developing weapons-grade uranium; shorn of his beard and his power and cast out on the streets of Manhattan, he's eventually taken in by the staff of an organic health-food collective, in whose company he discovers his sensitive side and picks up a few words of Yiddish - even as an aide reminds him his erstwhile foreign policy goal was to blow its native speakers off the face of the planet.

The title may echo Chaplin, but the film's stance is closer to the libertarianism of South Park: for all that Baron Cohen might want to take down the world's tyrants with custard pies, the suggestion is that Aladeen's military-grade discipline might have some use in whipping Manhattan's mismanaged mung-bean dispensaries into something like sound commercial shape. The free-thinking approach yields one brilliant piece of satirical writing, as Aladeen speculates on the benefits America could reap under a dictatorship ("You could let 1% of the people control all the wealth... you could keep all the people with one skin colour in prison"), but again you have to take the daring (like the Wii shoot-'em-up entitled "Munich Olympics") with a certain degree of crassness.

Aladeen's attempt to field a cellphone call while delivering a pregnant customer's baby would be the obvious example of give-'em-what-they-want grossout intended to tickle those kids bored by all the political stuff, though the film is generally iffy around the fairer sex, represented here by a snatch of concubines and the ever-willing Anna Faris as the protagonist's love interest, a right-on gal who - we're told - could do with losing a few pounds, and has to shave her underarms before Aladeen will even consider marrying her. (Naturally, she's allowed few qualms in return on the matter of pledging her troth to this homicidal maniac.) At some point, libertarianism must curve back around and overlap with totalitarianism: the film's attempt to subjugate the female body is just as regrettable as it is in those cultures Baron Cohen is sending up - particularly as The Dictator is so sharp and funny elsewhere.

The new film is actually less crass - and more crafted - than 2009's Bruno, which went blundering after its punchlines, usually at the expense of real people. Baron Cohen works up a terrific double-act with Jason Mantzoukas (as Aladeen's munitions advisor, "Nuclear Nadal"), through whom the writers find a very clever way to make their protagonist immediately more sympathetic: Aladeen is such a fool he hasn't realised his executioner was working against him, and so - try as he might - he hasn't actually had anyone killed. There's fun involving the Wadiya lexicon, and the soundtrack of Wadiyan takes on established hits ("Everybody Hurts", "Nine to Five", "Let's Get It On"). And somewhere in here, there's one authentic flash of genius: the suggestion that - for all that Aladeen can buy the sexual services of anybody he wants (and Megan Fox is extraordinarily game to embody a type of actress prepared to prostitute herself out to rich sugar-daddies) - the dictator has done everything he's done because he was desperately lacking for someone to cuddle up to at night. Amid the yaks and yuks and vaginal atrocities, this has the ring of comic truth.

The Dictator is available on DVD now.

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