23 May 2012

Wadiya Mean 'Democracy'?

It was hard to ignore Sacha Baron Cohen's presence in Cannes last week. Even though I missed his dramatic camel-tumbling red carpet stunt, the façade of the ever-showy Carlton hotel was hijacked and redecorated in honour of Admiral General Aladeen, Baron Cohen's titular character in his new film The Dictator. Classy it ain't. Still, at least no mankinis were involved. Thank goodness.

The Carlton Hotel in Wadiya Cannes

I probably should have re-read my review of Brüno, Baron Cohen's penultimate movie (excluding Hugo, of course), before electing to go to see The Dictator. Here's the gist: often amusing, occasionally hilarious, but with the same old gags and the same old cringe-worthy moments. As for The Dictator, it's sometimes amusing, very occasionally funny and extremely derivative. The plot, such as it is, consists of Aladeen, the self-proclaimed dictator of the, er, "democracy" of Wadiya, being betrayed by the rightful heir to the helm of the country Tamir (Ben Kingsley, of all people), who replaces him with a simpleton body double who can sign a new UN treaty that will make Wadiya a (real) democracy, and make Tamir rich thanks to his deals with the Chinese and various oil companies. But with the inadvertent help of Zoey (Anna Faris), the manager of a leftie, workers' cooperative grocery store in (of course) Brooklyn, he might be able to sneak his way into the hotel where the signing will take place in time to save his country from a fate worse than democracy.

As I said, The Dictator is quite amusing. I chuckled quite a lot--about half of the times were "well done, very offensive," wry chuckles--and laughed properly a few times. Still, The Dictator was amusing enough that I didn't feel my cinema ticket was a waste of money. The problem lies in the satire, or lack thereof. Or rather, Team America: World Police, which I really enjoyed, already covered a lot of the ground Larry Charles tries to broach with The Dictator, but it did it a lot better. Instead, The Dictator just goes for the low-hanging fruit every time--the lazy, easy jokes and the obvious insults. It doesn't attempt to do anything clever but nor, in 2012, is it very shocking either. Sometimes, it feels like some teenage boys have read the script of Team America and of Borat and tried to do some kind of fanboy mash-up.

I used to like The Ali G Show a lot--not every episode, but there were some great moments. It was creative and fresh and funny. But as Baron Cohen's fame spread, his candid camera filming had to become less, well, candid. A great deal of the fun of The Ali G Show was other people's responses to Ali G; even in Borat, which was a lot more staged, we could all have a good giggle at those dumb Yanks who might well have fallen for the act. With The Dictator, it's a lot less clear what point the film is trying to make. It's entertaining enough, but you'd be much better off spending the cost of the cinema ticket on an Ali G DVD and watching some of Baron Cohen's earlier material.

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