In his new movie The Dictator, Sacha Baron Cohen borrows liberally from the "wacky dictator" cannon established by some of Hollywood's great comedians. There's a mistaken identity switcheroo straight out of Charlie Chaplin's The Great Dictator, a send-up of earnest American lefties that could have been cribbed from Woody Allen's Bananas, and a "young foreign aristocrat learning important life lessons in the outer boroughs of New York" storyline from Eddie Murphy's Coming to America. But in updating the wacky dictator genre for the Arab Spring era, Cohen ends up with a pretty confused final product in which it's not really clear who is being mocked.
There were some early, and likely intentionally misleading, reports that the movie was a loose adaptation of Zenobia and the King -- a potboiler allegedly authored by Saddam Hussein -- and a title card at the beginning of the film dedicates it to the memory of Kim Jong Il, but the inspiration for Cohen's protagonist -- Admiral General Aladeen -- is obviously the late Libyan strongman Muammar al-Qaddafi, from his costumes to the Amazonian bodyguards to the ambiguous North African location of his country, Wadiya.
Cohen plays Aladeen as more of a spoiled, childlike buffoon than a calculating tyrant. When not working on his country's covert nuclear weapons program or ordering the execution of his underlings for minor slights, he amuses himself by re-enacting the 1972 Munich Olympics massacre on his Wii and paying for sex with Hollywood starlets. (One of the movie's best running jokes is the notion of celebrities literally whoring themselves to the world's autocrats -- Megan Fox and Edward Norton have cameos as themselves -- a send-up of how entertainers including Beyonce and Sting have appeared at private functions for dictators for the right price.)
Like Cohen's Borat and Bruno, most of the comedy in the film comes from dropping an over-the-top "foreigner" caricature into the United States and watching him interact with ordinary Americans. When Aladeen comes to New York to address the United Nations about his country's nuclear weapons program, he is abducted as part of a plot hatched by his scheming uncle (played by Ben Kingsley), replaced by his body-double, and then set loose on the streets of New York, where no one recognizes him without his trademark beard. He is then taken in by an earnest Brooklyn food co-op manager played by Anna Farris, who mistakes him for an exiled dissident and starts to fall for him as he schemes to return to power.
Cohen clearly knows his politics (how many comedies include both extended masturbation jokes and references to Gazprom?), but it's hard to get past the fact that most of the film's comedy derives from a British actor playing a crude Arab stereotype. Yes, at one point Aladeen protests that he's not Arab while being insulted by a racist Secret Service agent played by John C. Reilly, but given that the "Wadiyan" language is clearly mock Arabic, not to mention all the al Qaeda jokes, this seems pretty flimsy. It doesn't help that the other principal Wadiyan characters are played by non-Middle Eastern actors Kingsley, Fred Armisen, and Jason Mantzoukas.
Cohen has walked a thin line between mocking stereotypes and reveling in them before, but has largely gotten away with it because of the mockumentary format of his earlier movies. Borat may have been a Slavic caricature who referred to black people as "chocolate faces" and believed Jews have horns, and Bruno might have been a homophobe's worst nightmare of a gay man, but the joke was always on the real people with whom these characters interacted. Cohen was not being racist or homophobic, the logic went -- he was forcing Americans to reveal their own prejudices. (Though how humiliating an entire Romanian village served this goal is a little unclear.)
It's harder to make that excuse for Cohen in a scripted film. Yes, the film includes some send-ups of American hypocrisy in the war on terror -- there's a pretty good bit in which Aladeen sniffs at the outdated torture devices of his American captor including one that was "banned in Saudi Arabia for being too safe" -- and most of the American characters are either Islamophobic rubes or patronizingly P.C. liberals, but it's not as if any of them are wrong in their perceptions of Aladeen. He's a violent, misogynistic, anti-Semitic ignoramus who has the real Osama bin Laden stashed in his palace's guest suite. The only ordinary Wadiyan citizen in the film, the body double also portrayed by Cohen, is a dumb peasant who drinks his own urine and has difficulty distinguishing between women and goats. Whose prejudices are we mocking here? Cohen even throws in a few Chinese and African caricatures for good measure.
The movie's climax is a speech mocking American hypocrisy for lecturing the world on democracy. If America were a dictatorship, Aladeen helpfully suggests, 1 percent of the population could control 90 percent of the wealth, one minority group could be targeted for imprisonment, and the government could torture foreigners without due process. This might be a bit more biting if the rest of the film didn't seem to do everything in its power to confirm a jingoistic and borderline racist view of non-Western cultures.
Humor has always been a powerful weapon against dictators, no matter how unspeakable their crimes. As Mel Brooks, another past master of the wacky dictator genre, has said, "With comedy, we can rob Hitler of his posthumous power." In 1940, while Hitler was still very much on the march and the United States was still technically at peace with him, Chaplin used comedy to viciously mock the Nazi's leader megalomania.
Humor has also, of course, been a powerful weapon throughout the Arab Spring, from Mubarak jokes to Qaddafi's Zenga Zenga YouTube sensation. But it's hard to escape the feeling that Cohen is not so much mocking Arab dictators as the cultures and countries that produced them. In the end, the movie suggests that despite a change of heart brought on by his relationship with Farris's earnest co-op manager, Aladeen -- and Wadiya -- are ultimately irredeemable.
The best satire targets the powerful, bringing them down a few notches and deflating their bubbles of self-importance. But in the first Hollywood film to address last year's Arab uprisings, Cohen seems less interested in laughing with the people who live under the Qaddafis and Mubaraks of the world than at them.