‘The Dictator’: When racist replaces racy

‘The Dictator’: When racist replaces racy

EMRAH GÜLER ANKARA - Hürriyet Daily News
‘The Dictator’: When racist replaces racy

In ‘The Dictator,’ British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen introduces us to Cohen’s latest alterego, General Aladeen, beloved oppressor and chief ophthalmologist of the People’s Republic of Wadiya.

When Borat Sagdiyev, Kazakhstan’s sixth best journalist and one of the many alteregos of British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen, led the unsuspecting American patrons of a Country West Club to sing along to Throw the Jew Down the Well on screen in 2006, it was time to revisit the boundaries of comedy, and realize that we actually live in a very controlled environment when it comes to humor.

“Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan” was a mockumentary, a collection of pranks spread over a journey from New York to California. Borat and his producer traveled throughout the “U.S. and A,” to make a documentary on America or to find Pamela Anderson and make her Borat’s wife, whichever story you chose to follow.

The initial reaction to Cohen’s comedy was simple strain, before deciding whether to laugh or not. You had to laugh, because the pranks were funny, and the timing was spot on. And when you let yourself go, and started to feel comfortable laughing at all the misogynistic, anti-Semitic, homophobic and racist jokes, there was an unexpected sense of liberation. You could be a woman, Jewish or gay. It didn’t matter. In the hands of a masterful comedian who played on people’s ignorance and prejudice, political correctness crumbled into pieces. 

Enjoying Borat’s misadventures in mid-America as they met with congressmen, veteran feminists, extreme right-wingers, ignorant teenagers and suburban middle-class Americans, came with an acknowledgment that his comedy is a multilayered process. Three years later, another alterego of Cohen’s made his transfer from TV sketches to the big screen. Brüno, the flamboyant gay Austrian fashion designer, drew the wrath of LGBT communities on grounds that he perpetuated stereotypes about gays.

Through his alteregos, going back to his very first character, Ali G, the white British suburban wannabe rapper, Cohen had created his own brand of in-your-face satire exposing people’s ignorance and prejudice, and not succumbing to a coherent narrative. And yes, perpetuating age-old stereotypes along his journey. 

If the constant replay of stereotypes for the sake of shaking the core of political correctness through a string of alteregos Cohen has offered for the last decade and a half didn’t bother you before, it probably will in his latest feature, “The Dictator.”

Story replaces pranks with poor results

This week’s new release “The Dictator,” introducing us to Cohen’s latest alterego, General Aladeen, shows once more that there’s a delicate balance to comedy, and that the source of laughter can quickly go sour.

Collaborating with director Larry Charles for the third time, Cohen introduces us to what could be called part alterego and part film character, His Excellency Admiral General Shabazz Aladeen, beloved oppressor and chief ophthalmologist of the People’s Republic of Wadiya. The film is described as “the heroic tale of a dictator who risked his life to ensure that democracy would never come to the country he so lovingly oppressed.”

General Aladeen, the tyrannical ruler of the North African country Wadiya, is at first a playful blend of the idiosyncrasies of a list of real-life dictators from Muammar Gaddafi and Saddam Hussein to Kim Jong-il and Serdar Turkmenbashi. Following a speech in which he announces Wadiya is months away from enriching uranium, accompanied by uncontrollable laughter, he soon faces a threat of invasion by the U.S.

He is forced to visit New York to defend himself before the U.N. where he is betrayed by his brother, played by Ben Kingsley, and left anonymous and with no money on the streets of New York, eventually finding one true friend in Anna Faris’ feminist vegetarian cafe manager. 

Unlike the improvised, scattered pranks of the first two films, “The Dictator” surprises fans of Cohen with its coherent narrative structure, a feature film with nothing new to offer to the fish-out-of-water model. As Cohen deviates from his own brand of comedy, and gives in to Hollywood mechanics, the film becomes a parade of racist jokes, mostly on Western Islamophobia, hoping to shock instead of exposing baseless prejudice.

There is a scene in the movie in which General Aladeen and a friend ride a tourist helicopter over Manhattan, talking in Arabic as two Midwestern tourists look at them in horror hearing the words Empire State Building and gestures of explosion. What could be a genuinely funny scene as one of Cohen’s trademark no-boundaries pranks, the scene falls flat with the knowledge it is part of a solid script, and not a good one for that matter.