Highbrow Magazine is on a publishing break during the Thanksgiving holiday. New articles will be published on December 2.
‘The Dictator’: Sacha Baron Cohen and the Comedy of the Absurd
“The test of a real comedian is whether you laugh at him before he opens his mouth.” – George Jean Nathan
What can comedies teach us about contemporary geopolitics? Director Larry Charles and shape-shifting comic Sacha Baron Cohen yet again take this question to its absurdist limits in “The Dictator,” their new film about the unlikely romance between Admiral General Aladeen (Baron Cohen), a crazed North African tyrant, and Zoey (Anna Faris), a crunchy hipster from North Brooklyn.
Absolute sovereign of the fictive nation-state Wadiya—a melting pot of various nodes along “the axis of evil”—Aladeen is betrayed by his striving second-in-command, Tamir (Ben Kingsley). The plot unfolds in New York City, a place where even a maniacal, deposed dictator, dressed in second-hand hipster garb procured from the “lesbian bathroom” of an organic grocer, and on a crusade to suppress global democracy can remain relatively inconspicuous.
The United Nations has summoned Aladeen and his coterie to New York City in an effort to disarm Wadiya’s nuclear weapons program. Paranoid about a potential assassination, Aladeen recruits Efawadh, his loyal but dimwitted look-alike (also played by Baron Cohen) from the rugged Wadiyan mountainside. This body double sets the stage for Tamir’s treachery—one sovereign likeness is as good as another—who plots to sell out Wadiya’s monarchy for a puppet democracy governed by the global oligarchs of multinational capitalism. Wadiya’s lush oil reserves promise to make Tamir a very rich man.
Betrayed by Tamir, Aladeen finds himself in the clutches of a secret U.S. government torture chamber, replete with rusty tools and a sadistic interrogator (John C. Reilly). In a parodic reflection of a terrifying reality, Aladeen literally jokes his way out of certain death and dismemberment. He mocks America for making terror into a cliché, asserting the national superiority of Wadiya’s own torture apparatus. His cynicism about the representability of torture, even when victimized by its murderous instruments, surely echoes our own disaffection with the grizzly realities that we routinely imagine all too well.
After escaping from this satellite Guantanamo by the stub of his beard, Aladeen faces the more troubling terror of exile from his own procession. All he can do is watch from a distance while his buffoon body-double Efawadh attempts not to usurp but to impersonate Aladeen’s own sovereignty.
Larry Charles and Sacha Baron Cohen’s work often plays on this thematic of mimicry. “Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan” (2006) and “Bruno” (2009) both juxtapose Cohen’s over-the-top, staged performances with various documentary and news conventions such as candid footage, voiceover narration, and face-to-face interviews. Although “The Dictator” for the most part refrains from “Borat’s” and “Bruno’s" documentary aspirations, the thematic of impersonating political authority remains central to the film’s narrative.
Ironically, Aladeen’s protests of treachery are mistaken for political activism by the well-meaning but rigidly idealistic Zoey. Once the love interest from “The Hot Chick,” Faris plays a variation on her “dumb blond” character; Zoey flaunts a dark-dyed pixy cut, baggy overalls, unshaved underarms (a dubiously “fertile” source of the film’s humor), and naive political correctness instead of shallow ditziness.
Sex-crazed but ultimately lonely, Aladeen has plastered his walls with post-coital Polaroids of himself posing with everyone from Megan Fox to Angela Merckel. In contrast, Aladeen and Zoey communicate primarily through misconstrued bodily metaphors—her earthiness and his proclivity for obscenity manage to meet somewhere in the middle. Zoey might strike Aladeen as less photogenic than his usual exploits, but at least she is willing to stay with him through the night. In an absolute monarchy, one is still the loneliest number. And at the end of the day, isn’t democracy really just about our right to romantic coupling?
The comedy of “The Dictator” unravels as quickly as its politics. Governing the film’s own trajectory from geopolitical critique to vague clichés about universal humanism and global democracy, the film’s humor exhausts its own interest in whatever it may be ridiculing, instead reverting to crude bodily humor, inverted gender stereotypes revolving around the presence of armpit hair, smutty puns, and defecation gags.
Whereas “Borat” and “Bruno” deploy the grotesque to provoke candid reactions from their documentary bystanders, in “The Dictator,” the joke is really on the viewer.
Maggie Hennefeld, a contributing writer at Highbrow Magazine, hails from Brooklyn, N.Y., and currently lives in Providence, R.I., studying in a Modern Culture and Media Ph.D. Program at Brown University. Maggie has published in academic journals including Screen and Media Fields and has articles forthcoming in Discourse, Alphaville and Comedy Studies. She is currently working on her dissertation, titled “The Politics of Film Comedy: From Vaudeville to Terrorism.”
Photos: Paramount Pictures