Wednesday, 23 May 2012

FILM REVIEW: The Dictator

It's funny, alright, but it's time for Sacha Baron Cohen to face facts - he'll never be Monty Python

I'm always a little uneasy when I approach a Sacha Baron Cohen film these days. As clever as the man is, he has what I'd like to call a Monty Python complex - hilarious and iconic to some, alienating and offensive to others. Except the Python analogy is more like wishful thinking on his part; he consistently comes across as someone who thinks he's funnier than he actually is. He's Will Ferrell crossed with Chris Morris, and to be frank, he's neither as winning as Ferrell can be nor as sharp as Morris. In fact, it's not a stretch to say that the worst elements of both those comedians are also in Cohen; he's the kind who can be both overbearing and smug, and these facets are both on show in The Dictator.

Thankfully, the best (if you can call it that!) of Cohen is also on show in The Dictator, and that's what makes it watchable. The flimsy narrative - in which the lecherous, childlike title character (Cohen) tries to prevent his (fictional, of course) North African country from becoming a democracy, only to slowly "learn" the errors of his ways once he arrives in the United States (God Bless America!) - is little more than a framework for a series of constant punchlines and visual gags thrown at the audience, Airplane!-style. And, for the most part, the film is genuinely funny. Cohen's had the good sense to work with the writers of Eurotrip here, in which the comedy was surrounded by a paper-thin story that had just enough weight to keep viewers engaged to the very end. The Dictator also has a consistently mocking tone that's worthy of the best of both British and American comedy, with a winning female lead (the endearingly perky Anna Faris) in tow.

Ultimately, though, I like my comedies to have a bit more heart to them, to be less scatter shot. Certain films can get away with this either by having the comic performances to compensate (Airplane!, The Naked Gun) or balancing their cleverness with something to say (the best of Monty Python). The Holy Grail and The Meaning Of Life may have been sketchy, sure, but their best comic moments were iconic. There's nothing iconic or innovative in The Dictator, which lifts elements from Dave (the use of body doubles and the increasingly irritating Ben Kingsley*) and Crocodile Dundee (a "fish out of water" learns to "adapt" with the help of a good woman). Like in Borat, some of the most memorable comic moments are the kind that make your skin crawl, or make you want to avert your eyes. In other words, not the sort of things you'd really want to see again.

One could argue that The Dictator is breaking new ground, in the way it pushes the boundaries of tastelessness and mocks human gullibility. In reality, Cohen has absolutely nothing new to say. Be it corruption in politics, the consequences of trusting the wrong people, or love (seemingly) conquering all, the film's "issues" have been explored better elsewhere, satirically or otherwise. There's a fine line between satire and outright condescension to the audience, and, more often than not, Cohen crosses it.

If The Dictator didn't make you laugh, it'd be a total failure. Luckily, it does, and that just about makes it worth your while, although in my view, Cohen's smugness will prevent him from ever making a comedy classic. Then again, I suppose it's all a matter of taste.

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*If we ever needed reminding that Sir Ben's "glory days" of Gandhi and Schindler's List are long gone, this is it.