Long ago, in the days before web-streaming and pre-VCR, to watch a pornographic film, men (and women) had to sneak into a movie-hall and share their guilty pleasure with other strangers sitting around them, unseen in the dark. After tonight I think I know how they must have felt.
There were moments in Sacha Baron Cohen's "The Dictator" which made me laugh out loud, but also immediately ashamed. I looked around me, at the muffled shapes, wondering if they weren’t despising me for finding yet another pointlessly offensive gag amusing, just as I had despised them a moment earlier at one of their laughs. The fact that Baron Cohen gibbers in Hebrew whenever he pretends to be speaking Arabic, spraying us with insider tribal jokes like sweets on a Bar-Mitzvah boy's head, made me only cringe more.
Of course I laughed, because he is an unparalleled comic writer and performer, who has been doing this stuff for nearly two decades since his days as Ali G, so has honed it to a fine art. But that's precisely the reason why despite eliciting this mirth, I felt myself so let down. Admiral General Aladeen abused my memories, trading on the heritage of his illustrious predecessors and delivering so little. I was laughing because of what he reminded me. Not what he was now. Sacha Baron Cohen's Dictator has committed crimes against comedy - British, Jewish and the entire genre of offensive comedy. This was the worst sin a comedian can commit, he just wasn't funny enough. Not enough to justify a full-length feature film, certainly not one in the proud tradition of his previous masterpieces Borat and Bruno.
The genius of his comedy was creating these naïve-abroad characters that were so parodically funny and out of place, as to be able to use just about every racial epithet and slur to humiliate members of every social class and ethnicity and mock genders and sexual persuasions, to a degree that would have had any other actor, writer or director strung up on the cross of political correctness. But Ali and Borat and Bruno were all so wickedly innocent that not only could you excuse all their transgressions, you felt that taking offense or being scandalized by what they said, would have made you, not them, seem unenlightened and mean-spirited. As if Baron Cohen had an innate ability to sniff out hypocrisy and set off the inbuilt bullshit detector within each of us.
Add to all this the sheer thrill of having a Jewish boy do all this, thumbing our collective hook-nose at everyone else, poking fun and puncturing egos, and instead of sparking off pogroms and blood-libels at the desecration of the hosts, he gets showered with prizes and riches. Jews used to specialize in self-deprecating humor, about how ridiculous and we are and pathetic our situation. In a David-Goliath role reversal, like the IDF in the Six Day War, Baron Cohen turned the tables and now the joke is on the goyim.
But the shtick has worn thin. "The Dictator" wasn't bad because it demonized Arabs, as some American-Arab organizations have tried to claim in recent weeks. In fact, Admiral General Aladeen isn't necessarily an Arab and there is nothing in the movie to suggest he is a Muslim. It is very sad that Arab-Americans feel personally offended by a crude satire of anti-Semitic nuclear weapons developing despots. "The Dictator" is much more direct in sending up militant vegans and human-rights demonstrators, Islamophobic Americans, television pundits and Hollywood starlets who are all mercilessly lampooned.
We have seen it though all before, done so much better, written and acted by Baron Cohen. His underground brand of humor worked so well because there was something new and fresh and deviant and wrong about it. Perhaps it could work again in another format but spliced onto a grandiose feature, the bastard grandson of Charlie Chaplin's The Great Dictator and Eddie Murphy's Coming to America, it falls flat. There are some of the trademark hilarious vintage gags and outrageously dirty moments, but instead of elevating the entire vehicle, they are dragged down into mediocrity.
Towards the end of "The Dictator," I remembered that four years ago I had watched Baron Cohen's previous film in this very Camden Odeon. With all the Austrian fashion reporter's concentrated camp, Bruno, "the biggest Austrian superstar since Hitler," was more sophisticated than The Dictator. Kind of says it all, really.
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