Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Wed May 30, 2012 5:14 pm 
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Softer and softer Sacha

Sacha Baron Cohen, the talented and outrageous British comic, has changed his method this time. In The Dictator, his third movie made by Larry Charles, he stars as Aladeen, the ruler of the imaginary North African (but not Arab, he claims) state of Wadiya. Probably this is not a character that would have fooled any gullible people as Ali G, Borat, and Brüno did -- the latter two made into films in which actual people are shown humiliating themselves by falling for the ruse that he is a clueless visitor to the US from Kazakhstan and a swishy European fashionista, respectively. So the film is just playacting. It shows Aladeen getting lost for a good while in America. If you saw the trailer, you will be surprised to learn that Baron Cohen spends most of the film without the big fake beard -- and not playing the comically cruel dictator but descended among the people, working in a New York whole food grocery, and gradually turning into a nice guy, willing -- at first anyway -- when he reassumes his powers as Aladeen, to turn Wadiya into a democracy.

Without beard and dictatorial uniform, in more or less normal clothes, going by the name Alison Burgers and falling in love despite himself with his P.C. boss, Anna Faris, Baron Cohen seems to want to play something like a real person, and he comes off as surprisingly nice. Without some of the direct shock and offense and the consistent and repulsive previous personas, Baron Cohen's comedy is still, mind you, full of crudely sexual and scatological (and some violent) humor, though nothing compared to the brash, dumb tastelessness of Borat. Baron Cohen is still a very distinctive figure, with his striking height, long face, and bushy hair. But the character and the humor are not as shocking. And as it's less offensive, this film is also less strong and more conventional -- but more pleasant. You can actually call The Dictator a feel-good comedy. People who find it outrageous are forgetting how distasteful and deliberately lowbrow most current American film comedy is. Except for being more political -- at some points - it's otherwise a pretty conventional comedy.

Baron Cohen is over forty now. He may be mellowing, or losing his edge. Taking on the role of brutal dictator only shows that more. He doesn't seem to have had the stomach for it. But after all, is a real dictator really funny? Not surprisingly, none of the people Aladeen orders executed actually get killed: the chief executioner is a dissident. When Aladeen gives a speech near the end listing all the things a dictator can do, and they are all lawless and brutal acts that have been performed in recent years by the government of the United States, he is being quite huorless and earnest, if true.

Borat was a shocker and wowed American critics (I never quite understood why; I guess liberals enjoy being insulted). Sacha Baron Cohen is most known for his three impersonations of Ali G, Borat, and Brüno, taken on the road, tried out, with apparent success, in all sorts of real life situations (sometimes at some risk to himself, always with bold daring in playing the fool and risking outrage). Ali G., a ridiculous suburban white man who wants to be a ghetto rapper, was a TV character; he's crude and absurd. Borat and Brüno were the subject of movies, shot like this new one by the not very skillful but subservient Larry Charles. Aladeen presumably wasn't a character the comic could take on the road to fool anybody, and besides he's too famous now -- though he has gone around in character again (old habits die hard) to promote the new movie.

In fact each successive Baron Cohen feature film has been less effective than the one before. There is no denying the shock and outrage of Borat. I hated it. But that showed it worked. Admittedly there has never been anything quite like it. Brüno was energetic, but a bit tiresome. Zoolander, directed by and starring Ben Stiller, is a movie that's just as good at nailing the silly fashionista, and it's not only very funny, but more coherent, and much better looking -- an essential element for a film about style. The Devil Wears Prada, if from a clumsy book, is probably better as a realistic skewering of the fashion world than either of them, and there are plenty of others; the point is only Borat is unique. Apart from the Charlie Chaplin film from whom Charles and Baron Cohen stole the title, Charles's Dictator has serious rivals. Lee Tamahari's The Devil's Double, about Uday Hussein and the man forced to stand in for him, starring Dominic Cooper in both roles, lacks something. But as a realistic portrait of the world of a grizzly dictator it's pretty detailed and chilling, for more so than the humorous Dictator. Larry Charles' movie is just silly buffoonery, a mixture of elements. Maybe people who missed Borat will find it surprising. But for all the effort at offense, sticking to a script instead of improvised schtick hampers Baron Cohen from exploiting the character and his talents to the fullest. The movie finally is really just harmless fun, with a solemn message that I do not discount. Will this team ever regain the exaggerated praise they won with Borat? I doubt it.

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