The Dictator

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Jason Mantzoukas and Sacha Baron Cohen debate missile aestheticsPhoto: Paramount Pictures

3 StarsWhy I Saw It: Invited to a press screening, and impressed that Martin Scorsese played along with the spot on Saturday Night Live.
What I Thought: [Time Very Well Spent]  If you can keep up with the whiplash between the sublime and the profane, it’s worth a watch.

The Dictator. Dir. Larry Charles. Perf. Sacha Baron Cohen, Ben Kingsley, Anna Faris, Jason Mantzoukas. Paramount Pictures, 2012.

When despot General Aladeen falls prey to a failed assassination attempt during a trip to Manhattan, he receives the unlikely ~ and unwitting ~ assistance of a local left-leaning political activist.


I’ll be honest: I had intended to avoid The Dictator as a matter of principle after Sacha Baron Cohen’s narcissistic antics surrounding the Oscars. There’s humor, and then there’s decorum. But then I saw Martin Scorsese in the game. And Ben Kingsley. And Scott Rudin.

Hm. This demanded reconsideration. And you know what? Perspective is a virtue. While it fell a bit short of great, The Dictator is definitely recommendable.

The star power behind the production team serves it well (including Rudin, Larry Charles, and Lawrence Sher), the cameos are a kick (won’t ruin that here, of course), and the strength of the cast is impressive. There appears more than one dramatic heavy-hitter, and beginning with Aasif Mandvi we’re treated to one comedic hotshot after another in steady succession. Half the fun of the film is simply scanning every scene for faces. (Note to world: keep your eye on Pete Wiggins, here the brat in the grocery store. That kid is funny.)

With regard to the story, it’s worth noting a couple of distinctions: that between comedy and satire, and that between black humor and sick humor. First, comedy vs. satire: comedy conveys the absurd, the incongruous, in a way that produces amusement; satire employs irony, ridicule, and sarcasm to denounce the vile. Comedy makes us laugh, lightens our mood; satire by nature and intent makes us feel discomfort, guilt, or shame ~ while doing so in a comical enough context that we can tolerate the confrontation. Because of this, we find ourselves laughing almost unwillingly.

Second, black humor vs. sick humor: black humor uses wit regarding one’s own grievous experience; sick humor derives levity from the grievous experience of another. If it’s one’s own tragedy, have at it; if it’s not, hands off. If you’re Kermit, you can joke about the difficulty of being green; if not, then not. (And then of course there’s just gross humor, which here unfortunately abounds; it would have been a much finer film had that simply been let alone, but onward.)

The Dictator careens between all five elements, reaching the apex of each. Baron Cohen’s General Aladeen is Kim Jong Il meets Peter Sellers’ Inspector Clouseau, the [non-gross] humor is hilarious, and the satire is brilliant. Brilliant. (There’s one joke here of the blackest and most satirical I’ve ever seen ~ and it could only have been executed by Baron Cohen himself, in both pen and performance.) Just recognize that when you laugh wholeheartedly at one thing and then feel guilty doing so at another five minutes later, that’s actually in order. It’s crazy, but you’re not imagining anything. And it doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy the film, or that it isn’t a good one per se.

Also to his credit, Baron Cohen recognizes when to quit the skit: The Dictator clocks in at a compact eighty-three minutes. Recognize that it’s careening, and enjoy (or appreciate, as the case may be) what’s happening in any given moment. Is it funny? Yes and no. If one judges it by a single element, it may well fail, but just remember it’s a mashup between low-brow humor, good-natured ribbing, physical comedy, and disquieting truth-telling. The last ten minutes are worth the entirety.

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