Friday 19 January 2018

Gross gags undone by lazy script

Film of the week
The dictator (16, general release, 84 minutes)
Director: Sacha Baron Cohen Stars: Sacha Baron Cohen, Anna Faris, Ben Kingsley, John C Reilly, Megan Fox

Sacha Baron Cohen
Sacha Baron Cohen

Paul Whitington

Sacha Baron Cohen has never been one for gentle satire and his humour has always depended at least as much on shock tactics as actual wit. These tactics worked brilliantly in his 2006 hit Borat, not so well in Baron Cohen's truly awful 2009 follow-up, Bruno.

Both those films derived their comedy from ordinary people's responses to the astonishing faux-pas of a gaffe-prone protagonist, but Baron Cohen is too well known now to get away with that sort of candid-camera routine, so in The Dictator he takes his first pop at surrounding himself with real actors and attempting a proper comedy.

That doesn't mean he has cleaned up his act and if anything this film compensates for the lack of gawping civilians by upping the ante in terms of general grossness.

Most of that grossness is generated by the film's protagonist, Admiral General Aladeen (Baron Cohen), the dictator of Wadiya, an oil-rich desert state on the tip of North Africa.

Having acceded to power at the age of seven, Aladeen has known nothing but glittering palaces and subservient lackeys, and rules his kingdom capriciously. He drives around in stretch limos, keeps a harem of handsome female bodyguards and has those who displease him executed on a whim.

But Aladeen is lonely: in a strangely unfunny cameo, Megan Fox agrees to have sex with the dictator for a small fortune, but refuses to stay behind for "cuddles".

Considered something of a joke in the wider world, Aladeen hits the headlines when the West finds out that he's trying to develop a nuclear bomb. When he makes an Ahmadinejad-style speech insisting the uranium will be used only for powering hospitals and so forth, the dictator can't even keep a straight face, and he subsequently agrees to travel to New York to address the United Nations.

Aladeen does not know that his older brother, Tamir (Ben Kingsley) has been plotting against him and, after they arrive in New York, Tamir has him kidnapped and replaced by a biddable double. But Aladeen escapes, minus his ridiculous beard, and must fend for himself in New York City as he tries to foil his brother's rather elaborate scheme.

Anna Faris plays Zoey, the short-haired, right-on owner of a Brooklyn health food store who mistakes Aladeen for a political refugee from Wadiya and takes him in. Her character is custom-built to act as a politically correct foil to Aladeen's excesses, but their juxtaposition proves surprisingly unfunny, as does this singularly unpleasant film.

Baron Cohen has often stated his admiration for Peter Sellers, but Sellers was an actor first and foremost, and even his broadest creations (Clouseau, for instance) were firmly based in character. Baron Cohen's Aladeen is not a character at all, he's merely a cypher with a funny walk.

The film's script feels like it was assembled by a group of sniggering teenagers whose primary aim was to shock their parents and the tactic seems to have been that if you throw enough shit at a wall some of it will stick.

Perhaps it is possible to make viable jokes about rape and child abuse, but it would help if they were funny.

Baron Cohen always tries to achieve the relatively safe ground of equally insulting everyone, but although the idea of a video game about the massacre of Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics may be amusing in theory, its execution is lazy and flat.

And Baron Cohen isn't quite as brave as he lets on. There is the odd Bin Laden joke, but the Muslim faith is avoided like the plague in this hollow, pointless, obnoxious little picture.

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