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‘The Dictator’ reviews are in, and the verdict is…

by Naomi Pfefferman

May 17, 2012 | 10:04 am

The Dictator (2012)

The reviews are in for Sacha Baron Cohen’s “The Dictator,” ladies and gentlemen, and while there are pans and mixed notices, a number of the some 20 top critics I perused had good things to say about Sacha Baron Cohen’s latest spoof—mostly praising his social satire or crass comic antics to some degree. 

Sample headlines:  The Rude ‘dictator’ Rules,” accompanied Roger Ebert’s review in the Chicago Sun-Times; “He Has Ways of Making you Laugh,” proclaimed Richard Corliss’ Time review.

First a bit about the plot:  Admiral Gen. Aladeen (Baron Cohen) is Supreme Leader of a fictional North African country called Wadiya, and he’s been summoned to New York to address the United Nations about his nuclear weapons buildup.  Once in New York, however, he’s kidnapped, replaced with a body double (a goatherd) and finds refuge with a hippie-ish green grocer, Zoey (Anna Faris), who has alarming patches of armpit hair and whom he refers to as a “lesbian hobbit.”  A romance, natch, ensues, as do shenanigans involving the Israeli delegation to the United Nations (the klutzy goatherd accidentally pours urine on the diplomats, prompting the real Aladeen to enthuse, “That’s a good one.”) 

Suffice it to say, the dictator makes it to the U.N. in time to deliver a rousing speech that skewers American democracy – or lack thereof.  Along the way, there are plenty of jokes involving rape, torture, severed heads, masturbation and anti-Semitism – not to mention a full-frontal image of Baron Cohen’s flaccid member crashing into a hotel window.

Rolling Stone’s Peter Travers singled out gags such as “Zoey schooling her new squeeze in the how-to of jerking off and Aladeen panicking American tourists during a chopper ride over Manhattan.”  “’The Dictator’ zigs and zag through its scant 84 minutes as if running wild to save its crazy ass,” Travers writes.  “Oddly enough, this is a good thing…[it] leaves you laughing helplessly.  It starts at outrageous and rockets on from there.  Screw the occasional splutter.”

Ebert went so far as to claim that with “The Dictator,” Baron Cohen “establishes a claim as the best comic filmmaker now working.  And in a speech about dictatorships, he practices merciless political satire.”  The film “is funny,” he writes, “in addition to being obscene, disgusting, scatological [note: Osama bin Laden is the butt of some of the poop jokes] vulgar, crude and so on.”

More kudos came from NPR’s David Edelstein, who wrote that while “the film doesn’t approach the greatest of all American anti-war farces, the Marx Brothers’ ‘Duck Soup,’ Baron Cohen and director Larry Charles are certainly in the arena.  In a climactic speech, Aladeen extols the benefits of a dictatorship over a democracy, which gives leaders, he says, power to declare war unilaterally, violate civil liberties, and structure the economy so the rich get richer and the poor stay poor.  The speech is a triumph over the satirist’s art.”

The New York Times’ A.O. Scott disagreed, noting that “There is nothing especially outrageous here.  The movie’s blend of self-aware insult humor, self-indulgent grossness, celebrity cameos and strenuous whimsy represents a fairly standard recipe for sketch-comedy-derived feature films.”  Moreover, he adds,  the film “gestures halfheartedly toward topicality and, with equal lack of conviction, toward pure, anarchic silliness.”

The Washington Post’s Ann Hornaday, meanwhile, said the dictator’s budding romance with Zoey “invites nonstop jokes about lesbianism, underarm hair and fundamental cultural and political understandings.  “’The police here are so fascist!’” Zoey cries after Aladeen is temporarily taken into custody.  ‘Yeah, and not in a good way!’ Aladeen retorts.  That’s one of the few throwaway lines that is genuinely amusing in ‘The Dictator,’ which never achieves the stinging parodic heights of Cohen’s ‘Borat’ movie, but manages a better batting average than his most recent misfire, ‘Bruno.’….an early stunt involving a Wii game based on the 1972 Munich Olympics falls flatter than a stale matzo, a running gag about Hollwood stars selling sexual favors quickly loses steam and it can be stipulated that rape jokes simply aren’t funny.” 

Whether or not viewers laugh at “The Dictator,” it’s clearly one of the most unabashedly Jewish films this season, as Baron Cohen skewers anti-Semitism and anti-Israel sentiments with impunity.  I liked the Wii joke, and so did Salon’s Andrew O’Hehir:  “We see the bearded North African tyrant Admiral General Aladeen…playing a first-person-shooter video game called ‘Munich Olympics.’  You’re groaning already, right?  Here’s how it works: You knock on the door marked ‘Israeli Olympic Team.’  When a cute little Smurf-like creaure in a yarmulke and side-curls answers the door – ‘Shalom!’ – a pop-up widget announces ‘Shoot the Jew!’ and you waste him…This is funny precisely because it’s not funny…let’s remember that we’re talking about a guy who has cited World War II-era historican Ian Kershaw, who was one of his professors at Cambridge, as a major influence.”

While Aladeen dislikes Jews and Israel, Baron Cohen and his co-screenwriters, Alec Berg, David Mandel and Jeff Schaeffer, deliberately keep his ethnicity vague.  “’I’m not an Arab’,” he says at one point, and ‘The Dictator,’ directed by Larry Charles, carefully avoids references to Islam,” A.O. Scott notes.  “Is this precaution enough to prevent the movie from giving offense?  Probably not. But it may be enough to turn the tables on anyone who decides to take offense, which is really the point.”

Even so, The Wrap reported that “While Baron Cohen’s shtick may be in good fun, some Arab groups and experts aren’t in on the joke, believing the comedian has perpetuated negative stereotypes that go back to the early days of Hollywood.”  Omar Baddar, New Media Coordinator for the Arab American Institute “argued that there was a double standard – that an anti-Jewish stereotype would never pass muster in Hollywood.”  Other observers complained “not that Arabs are portrayed negatively, but that they were not cast in the film.”

Baron Cohen, meanwhile, was busy promoting his film in character at the Cannes Film Festival Wednesday, where he was nearly unseated by his camel as he ordered his virgin bodyguards to point their assault rifles at the press. 

However, he did take time to answer a question about the Arab spring, posed via email by The Forward’s Dan Friedman:  “I think that the Arab Spring is a passing fad, like the Atkins diet, or human rights, and you’ll find that pretty soon it will turn into the Crackdown Summer, Torture Fall and Execution Winter,” Baron-Cohen-as-dictator emailed Friedman.  “But you know the Arab Spring could have been avoided. I told Mubarak a thousand times: “If you get Wi-Fi in your palace, put a f**king password on it. The people will start using it.”

Here’s another question Friedman posed in his Q & A:

DF: Did you ever use any products of the Jewish hairstylist and anti-racism fighter Vidal Sassoon, who recently passed away?

Sacha Baron Cohen: Wait — Vidal Sassoon was a Jew?! But the secret behind my luxuriously masculine beard is using one whole bottle of Vidal Sassoon Fortifying Shampoo each day. Now I must cleanse it of its Zionism by paying for an overpriced beard trim that does not include tip, and then afterward I won’t even complain about it! Well, I know who was behind this: the Mossad!

“The Dictator” is now in theaters.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

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Naomi Pfefferman Magid is the arts & entertainment editor of the Jewish Journal, where she’s spent the last quarter century interviewing everyone from Seth Rogen, Natalie...

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