II sat behind two lesbians of color and they laughed at everything but the pee jokes, so I guess it’s alright to confess I enjoyed Sacha Baron Cohen’s disgusting new comedy, The Dictator. Shock humor, when it’s funny, has an extra kick to it, but when it isn’t funny, it doesn’t just fall flat, it spits in your face on the way down. There’s a bit of that, but if you’re tough you can take it. By the end you’ll be happy oppression is in such goofy hands.
There are moments in this new, fully scripted film that are funnier than anything Cohen’s done, and there are other moments when it’s awkwardly awful—and since these are actors with written lines and some rehearsal time, instead of the usual innocent dupes, it’s impossible to forgive. I think those moments will be different for everybody, depending on what you bring to the experience. But I bet everybody will have some. For my lesbians, it was the urine. For me it was the birthing scene, with its gynecological camerawork. Too much. Way.
Luckily, the jokes come thick and fast. And they come from all angles. There are absurdist shenanigans that place Cohen directly in line behind the Marx Brothers and Monty Python. There are smart references to great comedy classics—not just the obvious Chaplin stuff, but to Harold Lloyd and W.C. Fields. There is some sharp political satire and some dumb Earnest Goes to Jihad stupidity. And then there’s the pee and poo jokes. It’s what makes the whole mess work—if there’s something you can’t abide, don’t worry; there’ll be something completely different along in seven seconds.
The plot is just a ruse to get you to sit through the revolting, insulting, degrading, offensive set pieces, but, for what it’s worth, it goes something like this: A North African dictator comes to make a speech at the United Nations in order to forestall a potential NATO air strike. The world is afraid of how close he is to developing weapons’ grade uranium. And he probably would be if he didn’t keep having the heads of his nuclear scientists chopped off for perceived slights. He’s very touchy. Like most homicidal megalomaniacs. His second-in-command (a wasted Ben Kingsley) is trying to assassinate him. If only he could tell the doubles from the real deal! Cohen gets to play his own stand-ins, each one dumber than the last. When the dictator finds himself loose in America, he is temporarily sheltered by the people who are protesting his oppressive regime.
Zoe, the politically correct manager of a whole-foods collective that only employs political refuges, is the sole cinematic love interest I can remember (outside of the CrashPad feminist porn series) who doesn’t shave her armpits—the slumming dictator calls her a lesbian hobbit. She takes it in stride, knowing that she’s going to have to raise his social consciousness. There is actually a lot of heartwarming stuff as their relationship develops, despite Cohen’s readiness to plunge it into mockery. He’s good at that. Mocking something and celebrating it at the same time. It’s obvious that he loves politically correct organic food co-ops. He certainly gets them right. I could practically smell the okra, fair trade coffee, and armpits of hipsters whose natural deodorant crystals are failing them.
Even the soundtrack is funny and sweet at the same time. Arabic cover versions of Dolly Parton and REM alternate with faux Middle Eastern rap music and actual World music. You never know what’s coming. Just like the jokes. Meta, meta-meta, straight-up and nonsense all tumble around in a giddy froth.
I’m glad it mostly works. I’m a huge fan of Cohen’s, loved Borat and Bruno. I was worried that, because he’s so famous now, he can’t really take his outrageous characters into the real world and film the reactions of unknowing innocents. Turns out he doesn’t need it. And ordinary people are safe to leave their homes.
Is it possible to mock-by-demonstration racism, homophobia, sexism, anti-Semitism, and other awful social constructions without being racist, homophobic, sexist, anti-Semitic, and all the rest? I guess it depends. And probably more on the beholder than the comedian. Cohen pushes it. Like Sarah Silverman. And there are people who just won’t be able to join in. They aren’t wrong. It takes some good will to wade through the misfires, and I don’t blame anybody for bailing. It’s too bad, though, because the dictator’s final speech is jaw-droppingly brilliant. And it reveals Cohen’s heart as something quite different than you’d imagine. A passionate humanitarian of deep conviction and sharp intellect. Who also likes poo jokes.