I am not fit to touch the hem of your garment… Wait for The Dictator on DVD

Borat ranks high on my list of funniest films of all time.  At its heart, the film is all about ridiculing prejudice.  Look at how quickly people are willing to accept a cheap caricature when it confirms their biases.  Look at how ordinary folk respond to being told that everything they suspected about Muslims is actually true.  Look at how they hide behind ‘manners’ and saunter down the lazy path of misogyny, anti-Semitism, and homophobia.

And because biting social commentary doesn’t sell movie tickets, couch all of that in irritating catchphrases.

Bruno tried, unsuccessfully, to recapture that spirit.  Create a character which is everything homophobes believe about homosexuals and then push it on people to see how they react.  The unsurprising answer: homophobically.

The trick only works when people don’t twig that they’re the joke.  With too many high profile characters (particularly Borat and Ali G) and too many cameos in popular films, it’s harder to make the trick work without relying on extensive editing.

The Dictator shelves the mockumentary joke and goes with a fully scripted film, similar to the fish-out-of-water style of Ali G In Da House.  Sasha Baron Cohen plays General Admiral Aladeen, the ‘Glorious Oppressor’ of Wadiya, who must deliver a speech to the UN regarding his weapons-grade uranium or face  sanctions.  Before being able to deliver his speech he is betrayed by his advisor, Tamir (played by a strangely underwhelming Ben Kingsley), and left to fend for himself on the streets of New York, penniless and beardless.

The film is extremely uneven.  Where the opening three seconds are easily the best of the film, the film as a whole feels extremely padded.  Some scenes exist solely to set up a punchline, which would be fine, but the choppy editing makes it feel more like a series of sketches than a film.

SCENE: Somewhere.

The CHARACTERS are doing something for no discernible reason.

ALADEEN

[Insert joke about his penis]

The OTHER CHARACTERS look around awkwardly. Cut to a pan of New York City.

You know when you go to see really good stand up comedy and you’re so wrapped up in the moment that, as soon as the show is over, you struggle to remember why you were laughing so hard?  There are parts of this film which fit that perfectly.  But other parts — most of the film, to be honest — fall well short.  The result is that I finished watching it less than an hour ago and all I can remember are the terrible bits.  For some reason, Aladeen needs to learn how to masturbate.  Okay.  For some other reason, Aladeen thinks a ‘rape centre’ is where you go to rape people.  Right.  And there’s an Asian character who has managed to entice various celebrities into homosexual encounters.  Whatever.

I feel that I would have enjoyed this film a lot more if I’d been watching Borat first while drinking.  It feels like the Borat B-side.

Which is a shame because the heart of the film is quite intelligent and insightful: how interested are Americans in complexity when it comes to foreign policy?  Aladeen was the bad guy.  He was an evil dictator who executed people and built pointy-nukes.  When the shady cabal of corporations decide to make Wadiya a democracy in order to expand markets into the region and gain access to the oil reserves, the unkempt hippies in the street cheer.  By the time the film is in full swing, Aladeen has become the hero of the story: the war criminal who wants to stop the capitalists from bringing democracy to the country he wishes to rule…

Overall, it’s a disappointing film.  The satire is so very clever, but it is buried under so much garbage.  It is — to quote the film — like an onion: the outer layer sucks, then it’s ten layers underneath which sucks just as much.

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