This may surprise a lot of people who know me, but I actually like Sacha Baron Cohen (not to be mistaken for his cousin, Simon the autism researcher) I think he’s an excellent comedian, and that films like Borat do a lot to help shed light on certain aspects of American culture I might have missed by virtue of being part of it. I will admit that the charm wears off quickly and that he’s better off doing short (30 minutes or less) skits with these characters than full length feature films, and that I like him better as a side character in a film (Pirelli in Sweeney Todd, or the Station Manager in Hugo) but I still believe that he’s something of a jester, telling truths we couldn’t hear unless coated in schtickery and laughter. After all, the Talmud says “Who shall bring redemption? The Jesters”*
However, I have my reservations about his newest film, The Dictator (You can see the trailer here if you are so inclined) and I’m sure I’m not the only one who has noticed and may share my reservations as to why: The formula has changed. I knew it would only be a matter of time until the typical Borat and Bruno-formula of pulling the wool over the eyes of a non-acting, unaware audience of spectators and participants fell apart, because after a while, Baron-Cohen would become too well-known, and his style would ring too many bells for people, and they’d recognize that they were being duped. He was clearly aware of that, and there’s no way he would be able to pull it off with prominent, heavily-guarded figures like the president and members of the UN who would, for the most part, never go along with it. So, for The Dictator, he’s clearly switched to a more traditional Hollywood format, with real actors and a script for all to abide by.
But the charm of his humour, at least for me, was that while his characters were clearly overblown caricatures who believed outlandish, ridiculous things and said outlandish and ridiculous statements, the people whom he interacted with weren’t in on the joke, so their responses were genuine, and often times, frighteningly revealing, such as the rodeo director who enthusiastically agrees with Borat’s idea of hanging gay people, or the uptight racist southerners who try to grin and bear it when he brings a bag of his own shit to the table, but can’t handle it when his dinner date is a black prostitute. His character, combined with the belief that their words and actions wouldn’t be broadcast where anybody would know them, revealed a lot of ugliness.
That’s lost when doing a traditional Hollywood film. It’s one thing to have a bar full of clueless antisemites in Arizona cheering along stupidly during Borat’s “Throw the Jew Down the Well” song, it’s another thing entirely to have an official welcoming a dictator to New York and advising a trip to the Empire State building “before you or one of yer cousins blows it up.” It just doesn’t work as well, humour-wise, when everybody is a caricature and it’s all carefully scripted, rather than being stupidly honest.
I’m going to withhold my final judgements until I actually see the film, of course. Maybe my worries are all for naught, and this film will be a good way of deconstructing the way American leaders handle countries with heinous human rights records from situation to situation, the response the American public has to the leaders visiting (Anyone else think the premise is similar to when Ahmadinejad visited New York?) and other issues in American culture and politics. But I wish there were some way for this to have been pulled off in Baron-Cohen’s old style, just because I think no matter what The Dictator is like as it is now, it would be ten thousand times funnier if it were the “real deal”.
* Why yes, I do only know that because of the Simpsons episode Like Father, Like Clown. Thank you for noticing.