It’s sad to see Hollywood’s last mockumentarian hang up the b-roll for late 1990’s rap video style welcome parades up to the United Nations, but I guess that’s what happens when you dedicate your film to the late great dictators of the world. Sacha Baron Cohen might have dialed back a layer of realism in his third eponymous feature, The Dictator, but by keeping his focus on world politics we see that truth is often funnier than fiction.
In this film, Cohen transforms into Admiral General Aladeen, dictator of the North African country, Wadiya. Aladeen’s decision to enrich uranium gets him called before the United Nations in New York City. Unlike Cohen’s previous lightning rod characters, Aladeen’s ignorance is modeled after people we’ve all read about in the news, Saddam, Kim Jong-il, and Gaddafi, all get their well-deserved shout outs. Cohen rolls all of these naturally cartoonish characters all into one, then turns it up to 11. At times Aladeen’s overblown self-importance is the perfect foil for his American counterparts mirroring their commitment to arrogance. However, much of the film is highly improvised and within many scenes we end up with the easy joke or punch line that often strays out of character. Obviously no one expects a strict adherence to reality in a Sacha Baron Cohen movie, but even when the real world is heightened to cartoonish levels there needs to be some rules, especially when it comes to character.
The Dictator is at its best when it has a clear focus and knows who or what it’s satirizing. Through the course of the film, Aladeen looses his signature beard and no one recognizes him as “the supreme leader,” which forces him to rely on other people in a whole new way. On his journey back to the top of the social hierarchy, his self-centeredness reveals similar prejudices in those around him. He naturally falls in love with the manager of the Free Earth Collective, Zoey (Anna Faris), and their relationship exposes similarities in close-mindedness from the more liberal side of things.
Though Cohen and director, Larry Charles, utilize recent news footage to heighten the film’s reality, its glossy finish distinguishes it from their previous mockumentaries, Borat and Bruno. Instead of the footage feeling “found,” it seems setup with set pieces for sketch comedians to improvise in. Nevertheless, The Dictator takes cinéma vérité style filmmaking to orifices not usually reserved for fly on the wall type reality.
Sacha Baron Cohen continues to aim his mirror of ignorance directly at the American political spectrum, left to right. The satire is at its best when it finds a target to assassinate, but with many scenes relying on improvisation, instead of a finely tuned script, The Dictator doesn’t always hit its mark.