The Dictator

Unless you've recently had a bag on your head to be specially renditioned, are related to murdered Israeli athletes, don't like lesbian kisses, cock, dildo or pussy jokes, and unless you think that cancer, torture, dwarves, Jews, Arabs, infanticide, paedophilia, prostitution, incest, rape, anti-Semitism, casual racism or misogyny are inappropriate subjects for jokes, then it really is hard to find that much to be offended by in The Dictator.

Except, maybe, the pinko-commie rant towards the end implying that the USA is as 'good' as a dictatorship. Shocking.

One critic branded the film a contemporary Black and White Minstrel Show. This is not true, because the songs are better. But while the star of the show, General Aladeen (Sacha Baron Cohen), is by no means an 'every-Arab' type, much of the humor is lazy. In that way, it is a little like the Minstrel Show: a bit lightweight. The Dictatorfeels scrappy, thrown together, meandering sometimes like an overextended sketch and sometimes like cheap Saturday night Italian TV—despite lavish sets, high production values, and Ben Kingsley. It's asinine, crass, pointlessly shocking and bloody cruel; and deliciously funny because of it, for most of the way through. If you 'take a chill pill' (a phrase the General, in a TV interview, claimed to have coined) you will enjoy.

Interviewed on Australian TV, General Aladeen claimed to be working on a 2 trillion dollar project to make the coastline of his country, Wadiya, resemble his face. All that remained to do was find 'an ear-shaped piece of Sudan to invade', to complete the picture. A great line, but unfortunately not in the movie.

Here's another one: "I am going to meet Kim Jong Un, After Kim Jong Il became Kim Jong Dead…", also not in the film. And I suspect the spilling of the recently deceased Korean leader's "ashes" on Ryan Seacrest will be remembered long after the movie itself. A lot of the General's best work, in fact, was in the publicity interviews rather than the movie itself.

In The Dictator itself, his characters are actors in a film populated only by more actors, and the magic is occasionally missing. Cohen told stories of 200 lawsuits brought by the real people featured in Bruno, which might be an explanation (or more spin) but his decision to take General Aladeen into his own make-believe world gives the character a stronger back-story. This is what The Dictator was made for; to spew, into the world of the living, the fully-formed obscenity that is Aladeen.

Sacha Baron Cohen's characters come into their own when they are put into contact with real people—and even chat show hosts are people—because, as Ali G taught us, the embarassing reaction and our own cringing is at least half of the humour, innit.

When it works, it's as good as situationist comedy gets. It is Andy Kaufman with actual jokes. It also stands out from Ricky Gervais and others because his targets are far more weird and innately funny than the ordinary people that British comedy tends to send up. But when it doesn't work, it not only fails to expose prejudice or political correctness, but simply takes advantage of his victims' desire to be polite to the idiot they just met.

Given the safer environment of a fictional film, the 'satire' should have gone further than Aladeen's predictable rant. Still, I will follow the General's career in the real world with interest and savour the irony that will probably get real spooks shadowing him— to protect us from his weapons-grade rudeness.


    1. You’re not an idiot, Ali G was ballsy, and genius.

      See for example, ripping the piss out of both Republicans and Unionists in Northern Ireland: It was long overdue.

        1.  The medicated, under-educated masses need this sound cue to help express emotion. Without it, everyone forgets to laugh. Welcome to the American Viewing Audience.

          1. In reference to the comment below this: Ahh yes, sorry, I was referencing the movie not the Ali-G show. However, that being said,  my comments still stand regardless of geography. I’m betting the UK audience might be even worse.

          2. Even the great I’m Alan Partridge, which was not filmed before an audience, had a loud laugh track. Much of it was filmed on location, so I’m not sure if it was a canned track, or if they showed it back in front of an audience. 

  1. No, you’re not an idiot PD –

    It’s not exactly an apt comparison, but the late, great and complex comedian ANDY KAUFMAN was consistently funnier over a longer period in many more entertainment “vehicles” than Sasha Baron Cohen, who’s burped out a mere three lukewarm movies in six years. Kaufman worked all levels, Cohen persists in flogging the same dead “let’s dress up in funny clothes and use a funny accent” comedy horse

    To me, “ALI G” the original series is Cohen’s one shining moment, and even that program was full of clumsy staging and celebrities pretending that they didn’t know that Cohen was really an actor. The commercials for “The Dictator” make me cringe. It looks like sub-par Jerry Lewis schtick, not any sort of cutting edge comedy. Thank goodness, “The Avengers” was funny, otherwise this would be a humorless movie summer

    1. I can comprehend Sacha Cohen as doing comedy. I was around for Andy Kaufman the first time around, and never actually thought he was a comedian so much as a wandering insane person off of his meds. 

    2. You seem to only be aware of Cohen’s visibility in the US. Cohen has had a much longer career than “six years” in his native UK. The Ali G character first appeared in 1998. 

    3. Ali G existed before the Ali G show; he started out on the 11 O’Clock show I believe, which incidentally also gave a stage to a (slightly) younger Ricky Gervais – I’m pretty sure it’s where both of them got their popularity actually.

      The films Sacha has done are more of a sidenote in his career, but admittedly what most people outside of the UK are likely to know him for.

      The Borat movie though was brilliant.  I didn’t dislike Bruno as much as most people on BB, but it certainly didn’t rank too high for me.

      But if you think that the humour derived in Sacha’s work is from dressing up and using an accent, then you’re missing pretty much everything about his work.

    4.  Come now. The Cabin in the Woods was, for my money, a fine (and dark) comedy. Analyzing John Hughes via John Carpenter, H.P Lovecraft, and Rosemary’s Baby was long overdue, and made me immediately re-watch the Breakfast Club.

      1. Admittedly I haven’t gotten out much this year, but The Cabin in the Woods was the funniest and most satisfying movie I’ve seen in years.

        “Am I on speakerphone?”

  2. Sasha Baron Cohen is extraordinarily good in short, self-contained pieces (cf. the original Ali G material, and pretty much all the publicity interviews he did as The Dictator) but it wears thin in a movie-length format.  Which is a shame, because I think that all of his movie work has contained material that is amongst the best satire ever committed to screen, but it is often surrounded by distinctly sub-par filler.  A perfect exemplar of Sturgeon’s Law, in fact.  (90% of everything is crap.)

    1.  I think you nail it on the head. I think he’s absolutely brilliant in the Ali-G show, and in any interview or one-off. I liked his first feature, I thought Bruno fell short, and I’m sure this falls shorter. However, there is some sharp wit and real good comedy spread out. I’m perfectly able to “not like” parts of his movie and still enjoy the overall performance. 

  3. A “situationist comedy?” Sorry, but that makes this sound like a junior high school essay, but I generally agree with this review. But honestly, did anyone think that Sasha Baron Cohen would be able to produce a straight, scripted comedy that is funny?  His whole schtick is surprise & not much else.  I genuinely think the Borat movie is a real comedy classic, but past that the guy is really a hack… I mean, Bruno?  Ugggh…

    1.  The movie had some good jokes and funny stretches, and it had some bad jokes and long minutes that fell flat. I wouldn’t give it glowing reviews, but I certainly would classify it, with caveat, as funny.

      I’m really responding though to say that Bruno was the best of the bunch! Hacky is miles away from how I’d describe either that movie or Cohen in general…

    1. Have you seen what his competition is? As much as I feel his schtick has run it’s course, he’s still tons better at what he does than most other comedians out there.

      In contrast I really have grown to like Russell Brand, but you couldn’t pay me to see “Get Him to the Greek.”

  4. Sacha Noam Baron Cohen is a comedian. 
    Comedy is always only funny to some of those who get the humor.  There should be many commenters pointing out that Jewish or British humor just isn’t funny because it is insensitive and offensive. 

    I wouldn’t be surprised if Mr. Baron Cohen was at his funniest when he is with friends and family, when he doesn’t have to try for the lowest common denominator to appeal to an audience of international masses. 
    I might watch one of his movies sometime, but I’d love to meet him. 

    At this point the bozos at Dell could probably not afford to have him be the “motivational” speaker at a regional conference.  So there’s that.

    1. Comedy is always only funny to some of those who get the humor. There should be many commenters pointing out that Jewish or British humor just isn’t funny because it is insensitive and offensive. 

      Ah yes, “we just don’t get it”…

      You want to talk about smart British comedy and political satire?  Skip Baron Cohen and look into Chris Morris.

      Cohen’s targeted satire is starting to show a real pattern that is noticeable, and well interesting…..

      1.  You get that sentence you quoted? 
        Comedy is always only funny to some of those who get the humor.
        It speaks of three groups. 
        Those that don’t get it, those that get it and think it’s funny, and those that get it and don’t think it is funny. 

        Did you feel I called out your name and stuck you into one of those groups? 

    2. when he doesn’t have to try for the lowest common denominator to appeal to an audience of international masses.

      Oh, I see. It’s everyone else’s fault that he’s not funny.

      1.  Interesting to see what you read between my lines. 
        But don’t you think I could have managed to put that sentiment into words, had I felt it? 

  5. I wouldn’t go see the movie because I think it does grow tiresome after a while but the interviews are hilarious. Like the one on Australian TV, he just pushes things a little too far and you can hear the staff howling with laughter as the interviewers sit speechless. Now that’s comedy.

    1. Those morning TV twats are normally insufferable, but this is absolute gold… purely because Sasha Baron Cohen is light years ahead of them and they’re scared to say anything lest they give him more material.

  6. I don’t know if it’s just an example of, “Everything was better last time,” but his Dictator schtick seems like a shallow, juvenile parody of a stereotype. There’s a fine line between skewering bigotry via satire, and simply parroting it and mugging for laughs. For me, Ali G and Borat were definitely the first. The Dictator is the second.

  7. Sacha Baron Cohen isn’t funny, because all of his bits are based on the idea that  Muslims are antisemitic, which is why they oppose Israel.  Muslims oppose Israel because it is oppressing the Palestinians, not because of any genetic hatred of Jews.  But if Muslims are antisemitic, then what Israel is doing to Palestinians inside & outside of Israel is justified, in his view.  That is his complete schtick.    Don’t buy into it.

    1.  So, you’re wrong because I think he IS funny.  “All of his bits based on the idea Muslims are…”  Wrong again. He has plenty of bits, and they are not “all based on Muslims”.  Have you ever seen any other films, or even this one? I didn’t think so. Maybe you should look into what you speak so defiantly about before you talk.  Also, if you are looking at a satirical film for your political ideology- you are DOING IT WRONG.

      1. ”  So, you’re wrong because I think he IS funny.”  OK, that’s a valid response, since everyone doesn’t have the same sense of humor.  I don’t think he’s funny, for the above reason.  But please examine why you think it’s funny.   Validating Islamophobia  isn’t a good reason, in my opinion.

        1.  I don’t think he validates Islamophobia. If anything, he highlights and mocks it so it can be broken down and eliminated. I bet if you asked him the same question he would reply the same way. I see that, don’t you?  Why do I think he’s funny?  You know, it’s not the “racist” or stereotypical stuff that really makes me laugh, its more like his sharp wit. An example from the Aussie Morning show interview is when he describes the popular movies in his country: “When Harry Kidnapped Sally, You’ve Got Mailbomb, and the family film- Planet of the Rapes”. I see the comedy of the pun and modification of those titles. It makes me giggle. I don’t dive into hidden meanings or the “negative aspects of rape” and philisphical discussions. I just recognize the play on words, laugh, and forget for an instance all the really evil attrocities in our world. I Do not watch Sasha to comment on politics. I watch him to escape.  Again, throw away all his bits on Islam altogether, and look at his early Ali-G show material. Can you tell me that isn’t funny??? Come on.  On the episode where he has a policeman on to talk about the evils of drug abuse he holds up a poster board of illicit drugs. Ali points to the Marijuana and asks how much that would cost on the street. The policeman mumbles some answer, to which Ali G with a straight face says “Man, you got ripped off.”   That’s comedy gold.  Don’t like his mid east jokes? Go watch Bruno. It’s all about gays and germans.  There are choices you know.

          1. Except for the part in Bruno where he interviews the puzzled Christian Palestinian liquor store owner about how he could arrange to have himself kidnapped by ‘terrorists’.  It seems he can’t stay away this stuff.  He IS stuck in a rut.

    2.  Yes, lumping the motivations of an entire subset of humanity into one homogeneous philosophy to fit your worldview is racist. Except when you do it of course. All sorts of people hate all sorts of other people for all sorts of reasons, you know, beautiful rainbow and whatnot.

    3. Amazing what you read into Baron Cohen’s comedy.

      Never mind the ludicrous claim that “all his bits” are based on Muslims being antisemetic, and that he thinks it’s ok to oppress Palestine, can you even name ONE of his “bits” that is based on on Muslims being antisemetic, and that he thinks it’s ok to oppress Palestine?

      1.  All of Borat.
        Then the character “Bruno” appears before a puzzled Palestinian liquor store owner, asking the owner to help him get ‘kidnapped by terrorists.’

        1. All of Borat.

          You either watched a different movie than I did, or you failed to understand the basic premise of the movie.

          The movie was never about how antisemitic Arabs are. It was about how other people react to an antisemitic Arab.

          Consider the “Throw the Jew down the well” scene. Was the scene about the one fake-Arab actor pretending to be antisemitic, or was it about all the real Americans cheering and singing along with him?

          Consider your chosen Bruno scene. The Palestinian was, as you said, visibly puzzled. So was the film actually making him out to be a terrorist? Or was it making fun of the assumption that Palestinians are terrorists? Come on.

          When a film shows a puzzled Palestinian, that’s what it wants to show. It’s not like Baron Cohen was trying to set up a gotcha! moment to prove that Palestinians are terrorists, and accidentally failed, and happened to keep the footage in so you could see him failing. Come on.

          1.  Gee, you must have a lot of time on your hands.  I don’t know why you keep coming back to a thread everyone else has given up on.  This is my last posting.  Sacha Baron Cohen should stop trying to paint Muslims as genetically antisemitic in his comedy.  That is Orientalist & Racist.  Bye.

  8. Full disclosure: I haven’t seen this, or the majority of Baron-Cohen’s work. What I have seen I didn’t hate, but it’s just not my cup of tea.

    So there are people saying that this is racist. Fair enough. There are people saying that it’s actually stridently anti-racist, and that you have to treat it as the satire that it is. Also fair enough. Maybe they’re both right, or maybe exactly one of them and not the other is right. Like I said, I haven’t seen the movie.

    Here’s what makes me stabby, though: the sheer volume of people whose stance is basically that you’re not allowed to be offended. (In this case, for obvious reasons, they’re mostly in the pro-Dictator camp.) This takes a few forms, including

    • the patronizing “I know what you think you’re seeing, but you’re just not hip/smart/appropriately culturally situated enough to get it”
    • the righteously furious “you know perfectly well that this is a work of satirical genius, and you’re just playa-hating/anti-semitic/trolling,” and
    • the hopeless “it’s edgy, and he doesn’t play by Hollywood’s rules, so it must be brilliant, and therefore it can’t be bad.”

    The comparison between Baron-Cohen and Andy Kaufman might be pretty apt on their own merits, but the big difference between them is that how you felt about Andy Kaufman depended a lot on whether you’d seen last night’s episode of Taxi, and whether the three other people at the water cooler had too. Kaufman’s super-fans could each enjoy his antics in their own way, and his haters weren’t so much haters as people who just ignored him the second time around. Nobody watched a show religiously just to document how bad it was, and nobody crusaded to convert the unbelievers. 

    I mean, not that I have a solution. Hell, I’m part of the problem. (I’m going to post this and then go read eight different analyses of the Mad Men episode I just watched!) But I would suggest that “STOP LIKING WHAT I DON’T LIKE” and “you’re not allowed to be offended” are two bright lines we should never cross in any discussion that’s worth having.

  9. In full disclosure, I haven’t seen this film yet (and I do plan to) but I have to disagree with the whole “NOPE NO RACISM HERE DONT KNOW WHAT YOU’RE TALKING ABOUT JUST MOVE ALONG” attitude of this review. (though boingboing comments get very cruel and stupid and obviously white whenever I mention race)

    just looking at clips and excerpts, as well as his in-character press interviews, and basically knowing cohen’s comedy stylings, its very clear that the whole movie is premised on ugly and racist stereotypes of middle easterners. now, the argument can be made that he’s using humor to subvert these stereotypes, and i understand that. after all, the protagonist of borat constantly espoused anti-semitic attitudes in a way that commented on casual racism in europe. but let’s be honest, here, just like with borat most of the (incredibly white, often frat boy) audience members aren’t watching to deconstruct their racist ideology.

    they’re going to spend the rest of the summer quoting anti-arab jokes, just in the same way borat birthed a wave of uncritically repeated jew jokes. bruno, even more so, was filled with pretty anti-gay stereotypes that werent really challenged all that strongly within the movie, and which the audience was content to laugh at and offensively mimic afterwards. basically, what im saying is that while i get that sacha baron cohen isnt racist (on purpose, at least) the vast majority of this movies’ fans will be, and this type of humor is problematic since its use of nasty stereotypes could perpetuate them instead of skewering them.

    fyi i do not think these topics are off-limits for comedy, im just pointing out the clearly racist outpourings that follow each time these movies come out. and while i am admittedly white, arab and middle eastern folks will NOT appreciate being told to take a “chill pill” and enjoy it when faced with more of the usual racist bullshit

    1. Yeah, that was the problem with his “Throw The Jew Down The Well” bit in Borat.  Your “enlightened” audiences get that he’s poking fun at the redneck Arizona audience, who gaze mistrustfully at the foreigner in the ten-gallon hat until they realize he’s singing a catchy ditty with a message they feel they can subscribe to: that Jews are sneaky and dishonest and the reason for most of the trouble in the world.  And then they whoop and holler and joyfully sing along.  Yee-haw!

      Meanwhile, your redneck audiences just really like the song.  Maybe he shouldn’t have made it quite so toe-tappin’.

        1. I do.  That’s why he’s having fun at the rednecks’ expense, by pretending to mock Jews.

      1.  Have you read the accounts of the people who were there, though? They said Cohen warmed up the audience by singing a bunch of other verses that weren’t in the final cut of the film: “throw your mother down the well”, “throw your neighbour down the well” and so on. So by the time they got to “throw the Jew down the well” they just figured it was a somewhat nasty but basically nonsensical song. It’s the edits that construct the scene as y0u construe it.

        1. Sure.  It also helps, however, that musically the song is right in their wheelhouse, and about as funny as such offensive things can be.  I have no problem with its inclusion in the movie, and I get Cohen’s point, but I also understand Zeke’s concern that some people can embrace the bigotry being mocked, without quite getting (or caring) that it’s being mocked as the uninformed, ignorant, smallminded cruelty that it is.  Kinda like someone laughing with Archie Bunker, rather than at Archie Bunker.

          I don’t agree with Zeke, however, if he worries that this factor devalues Cohen’s comedy to the point of potentially negating its utility and benefit to culture.

    2.  I think all of you need to calm down and grow a funny bone. I for one do NOT want to live in an over- PC world of not being able to make fun of people. Sasha makes fun of ALL races, that’s his free pass. It’s people who are racist and NOT joking about one race you should be worried about.  If you are watching a comedy movie for your philisophical insights and moral teachings you are DOING IT WRONG.

      1.  So why doesn’t he make a movie making fun of Israel — the settlers, the ultra-orthodox, the Right. the Left, the politicians etc.  He seems stuck in a rut. 

        1. Maybe because it wouldn’t be funny? I dunno-  Give him a couple years. It takes time to make a feature motion picture you know.  Stuck in a Rut? Let’s see: He’s played:   A New York street gangster, a Khasikstan Television host, A gay German fashion designer, a Mid-east Dictator.  These are all the same? I’m failing to find the rut you speak of. Sounds like you are just obsessed with Israel to me, and trying to find a solution in the work of a comedy writer. Take the politics to Huff post, this guy makes funny movies.

          1. If you love him so much, why don’t you marry him?

            See, I can be hilariously funny too.

    1. The Dictator a moderately funny movie that uses the relevant backdrop of the Middle East to paint tyrants in a negative light (Kim Jong Il/Un are depicted as equivalent to Aladeen). Arabs not named Aladeen are shown to be deeply intelligent, hard-working and normal people in the movie who are subject to unnecessary and absurd oppression.

      Posts like this, in 2012, show haw far we have to go in recognizing who is racist and what racism means.

      1. “Arabs not named Aladeen are shown to be deeply intelligent, hard-working and normal people…”

        I’m glad you mentioned this because there are three other principal Arab characters in the film.

        1) Efawadh (also played by Cohen) is a dimwitted Arab peasant who when left in a room with naked women, mistakes them for goats and tries to milk their breasts. He’s also shown drinking urine.

        2) Tamir (played by Ben Kingsley) is a duplicitous autocrat who conspires to sell his people’s oil out from under them.

        3) Nadal (played by Jason Manzoukas) is an exiled nuclear scientist who supports the dictatorship and wants to make a bomb.

        None of these actors are of Arab descent (Kingsley is part Indian and Manzoukas is Greek American.) But I suppose the “deeply intelligent and normal people” you’re talking about are briefly glimpsed in the Wadiyan exile restaurant scene. This does not excuse that, on the whole, The Dictator is a film in which non-Arab people engage in racist and Orientalist caricature of Arabs. If you are genuinely curious about why this film’s depiction of Arabs is a problem, I can offer you the two following critiques as an excellent place to start: 

  10. I’m inclined to agree with those who find the whole film uncomfortably close to racist, even though it is often quite funny. On the one hand, the Middle East seems to breed a particularly virulent strain of despotic dictator, which Cohen satirizes with pretty broad strokes. On the other hand, the U.S. and other Western countries are complicit in many dark crimes, supporting multiple dictatorships with money and weapons. This last fact goes unmentioned in The Dictator.

    On the other, OTHER hand, the film sets up the psychopathic “hero” in opposition to his treacherous right-hand man (Ben Kinglsey), who wants to bring Western-style democracy to his country — not to emancipate his people but to sell out to Big Oil for $billions. That fact, plus The Dictator’s final speech in which he explains why he likes being a dictator (totalitarian surveillance; due-process free detention, torture and assassination; wars based on lies, etc.), are what counts as political commentary.

    But serious political satire is in short supply in The Dictator. The film seems to think vegan feminists and mass-murdering tyrants are equally deserving of satire. The results are often laugh-out-loud funny, but also shallow, silly and nowhere near as dark or sharp as it should have been. Don’t go in expecting a masterpiece.

  11. Based on actually watching the movie, I’d say it’s very clear that it’s premised on ugly stereotypes of arab dictators and not middle-easterners generally, kind of why it’s called the dictator (is it too much to hope that anybody remembers an earlier movie of almost the same name…?). As a group, though, they are recently much diminished, so SBC is late in the game here.

    1. Based on actually watching the movie, I’d say it’s very clear that it’s premised on ugly stereotypes of arab dictators and not middle-easterners generally…

      But there are batshit crazy dictators throughout East Asia, throughout Central Asia, throughout Africa. And yet, he modeled his character on Gaddafi rather than Niyazov.

  12. I don’t know, when it’s scripted I don’ think it’s nearly as enjoyable. The truth being stranger (funnier?) than fiction and all that. 

    There were parts in Bruno when I thought, Holy shit, they’re gonna murder this guy… Without that element, it’s hard to image myself chuckling during the whole “let’s laugh at stereotypes” bit.

    Disclosure: I haven’t seen it – and thus have no rock to stand on.

  13. Cohen, in an interview on NPR’s Fresh Air yesterday:

    Shortened through (!) in case the above URL breaks:

    Illuminating. And though I agree with the posters here about Bruno his account of the-making-of is hilarious and astonishing.

    Cohen is an equal opportunity offender. His political and social criticism can strike uncomfortably close to home. Mr. Cohen, if you’re reading this, thanks for pushing us out of our comfort zone. The more you make us laugh or at least question at the unfunny parts of our culture, the more we wake up a little. Keep up the good work, subverting that dominant (but oh so failed) paradigm.

  14. I haven’t watched the movie and may wait until its on DVD but I just had to comment because I was looking at the medals he’s wearing in the pic and as a retired AF Tech Sergeant I realized I have a few of them.  Very funny…  If I recall right the third one down on the left side is the Antarctic service medal.  Always wanted one of those… 

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