The Dictator is Sacha Baron Cohen’s new comedy. It’s about a North African dictator who travels to New York to address the United Nations and the machinations of his older brother (Ben Kingsley) who wants to remove him from his throne. It’s both very broad and quite clever in its humour, with most of the jokes landing satisfyingly and far less of the film as flinch-inducingly uncomfortable as Cohen’s other creations. It’s also the most linear and scripted of his films, with no unfortunate celebrities or members of the public caught on film and humiliated for the ages.
That isn’t to say it doesn’t comment on celebrity and the public at large: one of the funniest moments in the film is of two foreigners pretending to be typical Americans and going on a helicopter tour with a couple of average Americans before being mistaken for terrorists (if you have seen the clip on the trailers you may think you have seen the entirety of the joke: you haven’t, it is much, much funnier and in much worse taste). There are also celebrity cameos which mainly deal with the fleeting nature of desirability and exactly how far people will go for money.
The undercurrent of the film, however, is the dichotomy of what the world at large says it expects of countries, both ethically and politically, and what it really wants of them. Cohen’s character is really no more extreme than many genuine dictators, and falls out of grace in a way that requires no more than token gestures in order to placate the rest of the world. The final speech makes some very salient points while disguising itself as a ridiculous joke.
Along the way there are plenty of jokes, usually at Cohen’s character’s expense, and just about enough plot to hang them on. The dictator finds himself cast aside in New York and has to learn to deal with ordinary people without being able to have them routinely executed. He also works out what his brother is actually up to and shows that he has actual skills born of his oppression of everyone else.
There is a subtext that the liberalism we aspire to is ineffective and we need people who are prepared to take charge and run things, and also what we say we want from our leaders isn’t what we really require. This is held up against both domestic and foreign policy and mainly as the butt of some very good gags.
The film doesn’t outstay its welcome and is genuinely very funny in places. It’s also in very bad taste, and probably grossly offensive to lots of people. I enjoyed it immensely.