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Arts and Culture

The Good-Natured Dictator

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Posted on May 20, 2012
Paramount

By Richard Schickel

No movie dedicated to Kim Jong Il can be all bad.

On the other hand, “The Dictator,” the product of Sacha Baron Cohen, cannot be all good either.

He’s a scattershot satirist, blending the good, the bad and the merely vulgar in a fast-paced, seemingly careless, but often rather shrewd way. You could say that sometimes the best thing in his films is the vulgarity. There is something paradoxically innocent about it, as if Baron Cohen is a preteen trying out the odd flatulence joke to see whether we will wince at it or just put it down as youthful high spirits.

In “The Dictator,” Baron Cohen plays Aladeen, the leader of a mythical, oil-rich North African state who is eager to join the nuclear club. He is of the opinion that the rocket designed to deliver his weapon should be more “pointy” than snub-nosed, and that discussion is brief and digressive. Sometimes it seems that the film is all digressions, which is not necessarily a bad thing.

As the dictator Aladeen, Baron Cohen sets off to New York City where he intends to address the U.N. General Assembly about his world-stage intentions. This involves drinking a large tumbler of his own urine. Baron Cohen is not an especially subtle comic operative, nor one who is able to stick to the point for very long.

His real business turns out to be falling in love with Zoey (Anna Faris), the owner of a health food store: liberal-minded, innocent and about as inappropriate a girlfriend for Aladeen as you can imagine—that is, if you can also imagine him as a serious threat to world stability, which is of course impossible. You know their love is true when their fingers entangle inside the vagina of a woman who is about to deliver a child. If you want to know by what logic this tender moment arrives, then I think I can safely say that “The Dictator” is not the movie for you. Baron Cohen is a walking, talking shaggy dog story, and narrative logic is not high on his to-do list. Nor is wit of the Wildean epigram. Or, for that matter, elegant satirical structure.

Under Larry Charles’ point-and-shoot direction, the film plows along from gag to gag, some good, some bad, some scatological, some mildly sexual in their silly, childish ways. What saves the show by a narrow margin is what we might call its good nature. There is not a vicious bone in Baron Cohen’s body. I don’t think he wants—or is capable of—real bite in his humor. Whether he is having a discussion with John C. Reilly about the efficacy of various torture instruments or hanging off a wire over a Manhattan street, he’s always just kidding. He never lurches for the jugular.

This is all right in a way. You chuckle your way through his movies, secure in the knowledge that the feeble jokes will be brief and that the somewhat better ones will soon arrive. I think Baron Cohen is capable of something more, but he is prone to the comedian’s fatal flaw: He wants to be liked. He wants to be welcomed back into our lives every few years with a genial comedy that may, at times, lean a little bit toward the transgressive, but doesn’t want to stay in that mode for any length of time. Baron Cohen may have more to offer. I’m not sure. Maybe he is an essentially sweet-spirited man traveling under false colors. Pleasantness is OK as far as it goes, and you’ll have a nice, forgettable time watching “The Dictator.” But it could have been much more, I think. C’mon, Sasha. Take the gloves off. Rip and tear. If you still have it in you. Or if you ever did.


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vector56's avatar

By vector56, May 23, 2012 at 4:44 am Link to this comment

Just in case my comparison between Sacha Baron Cohen and Al Jolson is not clear here is a little sample of Ali-G:


http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dyLSstqMvH8&feature=related

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By ponderosa, May 22, 2012 at 8:05 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I’m really getting tired of Jews being allowed to be
openly racist against Asians, Arabs, blacks, and all
other minorities, and then we get professional Jews
like nefesh talking their zionazi garbage. Really
getting tired of it. Notice how that Jewish organ ring
story was completely SILENCED. I mean, that’s an
operation that involved dozens of high profile New
Jersey politicians and rabbis, and you NEVER heard what
happened. Notice how the whole Jewish pedophile story
in Brooklyn is being quashed too. Just sayin’

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vector56's avatar

By vector56, May 22, 2012 at 3:38 pm Link to this comment

“Just too much Jew for you. Yep, those pesky Jews don’t know their place. Are you man enough to put them there? I doubt it, Doubtom”


Like PatrickHenry, I find nefesh’s above statement both telling and fascinating at the same time. In my mind it is akin to the Faust Bravado that young Black men feel the need to display (while like nefesh, still claiming victim-hood). This is a learned generational after effect of American Human Slavery; Black men had to stand by and watch their Women and Children be Traded, Rapped, and Beaten and even Murdered helplessly for 200 years. Any trace of humanity or Manhood was beat out of them long ago and the “shame” still hangs around like a bad taste in their minds!

Young Jewish men could possible feel this same sense of “group” shame? Marching millions of your own Women and children into Death camps at NAZI gun point is sure to create physiological after effects. “Never Again!”; ok, we get it! But, Please show the people of the Middle East the “Mercy” that those NAZIS monsters did not show you.

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PatrickHenry's avatar

By PatrickHenry, May 22, 2012 at 3:01 pm Link to this comment

I didn’t know there was such a thing as illegitimate criticism of israel as opposed to legitimate criticism of israel.

Who decides?

I see the the airborne troll nefresh has landed equating criticism of israel as criticism of Jews everywhere….except in the case of Gilad Atzmon and maybe Finklestein and Noam….

Baron Cohen skewers so well with his style of satire:

 

I never thought Al Jolson funny or his not so unique style of racist ‘satire’ funny either.

Just too much Jew for you. Yep, those pesky Jews don’t know their place. Are you man enough to put them there? I doubt it, Doubtom

 

First mock a poster by inferring the false dictum of universal victimhood of jews and follow it up with the veiled threat of the use of force.

Cohen sucks and is nothing more than a non artistic twat albeit financed by the zionist entity of Hollywood.  I’ll turn the channel when his movies are free on HBO.

Just another small BDS contribution on my part.

http://www.BDSmovement.net

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nefesh's avatar

By nefesh, May 22, 2012 at 12:53 pm Link to this comment

By D.R. Zing, May 22 at 10:59 am

Nefesh, I read your link as well. You point is well
taken, but I don’t appreciate this quote: “given the
preponderance of cheap-shot bigotry amongst all you
commenters.”  There are some jackasses who post
anti-Semitic shit here.

Indeed there are. More than just some in my experience. But you’re right, not everyone here is an antisemite, and I didn’t mean to include you.

But some people simply
disagree with Israeli policies, just as some Jews who
live in Israel disagree with Israeli policies.

This is true, but it’s easy to tell the difference between legitimate criticism of Israel and that which is not. And most of the criticism is definitely way outside the boundaries of what’s fair and legit. When you have knee-jerk Jew-haters and Jew-baiters like Patrick Henry injecting Jews and Israel into issues not even remotely connected to an article’s topic, you know there’s a problem.

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D.R. Zing's avatar

By D.R. Zing, May 22, 2012 at 11:59 am Link to this comment

Wow. You know I guess I’m a bit dim witted.  I’m only
a moderate Cohen fan.  I watched a couple episodes
Ali G and saw Borat, which I enjoyed but found
painful to watch, oddly.

At any rate, it never even occurred to me that he is
Jewish. And now to see this discussion degenerate
into discussions of Zionism is bizarre.

PatrickHenry, I read the link and found it poorly
written and really kind of strange, especially when
the writer implied that he —the writer of the
review—could see a possible criticism of Israel
but there’s no way Cohen could have intended it. I
believe Cohen’s Master’s thesis was about racism. 
Chances are when there’s a double entendre in his
work, he knows it’s there. He’s off the charts smart. 

Nefesh, I read your link as well. You point is well
taken, but I don’t appreciate this quote: “given the
preponderance of cheap-shot bigotry amongst all you
commenters.”  There are some jackasses who post
anti-Semitic shit here. But some people simply
disagree with Israeli policies, just as some Jews who
live in Israel disagree with Israeli policies.

All that said, I come back to my original point. I
think the folks who are bringing up Zionism in
regards to Cohen’s work are way off base.  I just
haven’t seen anything in his past work that even
reminded me of Israel. Again, maybe I’m just a dim
bulb or maybe it’s just that others are looking for
what they want to find. 

All the best.

Zing

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nefesh's avatar

By nefesh, May 22, 2012 at 11:03 am Link to this comment

If anyone here is open-minded enough to bother (and that’s a huge ‘if’, given the preponderance of cheap-shot bigotry amongst all you commenters), here’s the kind of thing Baron Cohen skewers so well with his style of satire:

http://www.ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L-4232834,00.html

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nefesh's avatar

By nefesh, May 22, 2012 at 10:47 am Link to this comment

By Doubtom, May 22 at 8:38

What a preponderance of jews and jewish opinions.

Just too much Jew for you. Yep, those pesky Jews don’t know their place. Are you man enough to put them there? I doubt it, Doubtom.

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By Doubtom, May 22, 2012 at 9:38 am Link to this comment

What a preponderance of jews and jewish opinions.  Nowhere is it mentioned that
Cohen is just a plain pain in the ass who has never grown up or realized that
people should work for a living instead of mocking everything under the sun.
What he puts forth doesn’t require artistry or skill, merely an absence of maturity
and normal restraint.  He is a societal parasite purely and simply and has no
redeeming value.  Whatever anti-semitism is present in our society, a good
amount of it can be laid at his doorstep.  On his best day, a truly despicable
creature.

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PatrickHenry's avatar

By PatrickHenry, May 22, 2012 at 3:27 am Link to this comment

A good review by Gilad Atzmon and to the point.

http://www.veteranstoday.com/2012/05/21/hafez-aladdeen-is-an-israeli-patriot/

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By Harold Stassen, May 21, 2012 at 7:22 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Sasha Baron Cohen is sure that anyone who goes to this movie won’t disagree with him.  It’s a pointless and self-congratulatory schtick-the “comic as prophet”, laughter helping to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable”; “speaking truth to power” while making millions and living an exceptionally privileged life.  The only one who’s truly laughing is the one making money off the idiots who consider themselves “progressive” for having wasted 7-15 dollars on crap that will be out on DVD (or YouTube)in less than a year.

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D.R. Zing's avatar

By D.R. Zing, May 21, 2012 at 5:57 pm Link to this comment

Hmm.  With all due respect, I think the reviewer
here, Mr. Schickel, is underestimating the courage
and the outright hatred in some of Sacha Baron Cohen’s
humor. 

Recall this is a man who brought shit to a dinner
table of southern racists and when that failed to
piss them off, he made them realize they were
racists; a man who sang a song at a rodeo ridiculing
American foreign policy, a move that could have
easily got him killed or maimed; a man who made light
of sex with donkeys—or was it horses?— in his Ali G
role. 

That’s not exactly a guy who’s wanting to be loved by
everyone.  It is a man who expresses contempt where
he sees fit and is not afraid to joke about the most
taboo of subjects. 

Ben Stiller he is not. 

If Baron Cohen does as the reviewer suggests and
takes the gloves off to rip and tear, I shudder to
think what kind of gaping chasms we might see. 

The guy is brilliant, just brilliant and just plain
batshit crazy with courage.

He’s got balls like uh ‘dis!

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PatrickHenry's avatar

By PatrickHenry, May 21, 2012 at 2:53 pm Link to this comment

vector56,

Al Jolson is a tame comparison.  Cohen promotes armed hatred in the typical zionist propagandic fashion.

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By gerard, May 21, 2012 at 9:44 am Link to this comment

People gete their laughs where they can, these days.

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vector56's avatar

By vector56, May 21, 2012 at 6:30 am Link to this comment

“As Max Blumnthal and others have pointed out, “The Dictator” is nothing more than a minstrel show.”

I agree with Max and Citizen Robespierre115; Cohen’s character “Ali-G” seem to me like Al Jolson reborn.

Also, Jon Steward seems to have no problem express his glee when Muslims- Terrorist are “put down” without a trial; he went on about dead Osama for two weeks.

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Robespierre115's avatar

By Robespierre115, May 21, 2012 at 1:31 am Link to this comment

As Max Blumnthal and others have pointed out, “The Dictator” is nothing more than a minstrel show. Why doesn’t Cohen, who is reportedly very pro-Israel, ever satirize Netanyahu or Avigdor Lieberman? As for Schickel, last year he trased “The Tree Of Life” but gives this pass, what a joke.

This very good, balanced article on the film from Foreign Policy says it all:

http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2012/05/17/is_the_dictator_racist?page=full

Excerpt:

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.

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