Deborah Ross

Tough at the top

Tough at the top
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The first thing you should know is that I love, adore and worship Sacha Baron Cohen and have this fantasy whereby we get married and set up home in Notting Hill as a power couple and when the phone rings and it’s Richard Branson I will say, ‘I’m so sorry, Dick, but we can’t come to Necker Island next week as we’ve promised to go away with Charles and Nigella. We know, boring, but we can’t cancel them again.’

Baron Cohen is, I believe, the greatest comic film-maker working today, and although The Dictator is not up there with Borat, or even his Ali G television persona, as it’s so much broader and more familiar, I would not allow this to come between us. ‘Sacha,’ I would say to him at the breakfast table, ‘pass the toast.’ As my mother always told me, ‘If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all,’ and although I have based a career on doing the exact opposite, I would make an exception in this instance.

Unlike Borat and Brüno, The Dictator does not, sadly, depend on Baron Cohen ambushing real people, as it is, instead, a narrative fiction; it has a story and sticks to it. Therefore, the stakes feel a lot lower, probably because they are, and the tension between prankster and pranked is absent. This is a shame as it’s this tension which produces such wondrously embarrassing yet telling results. OK, Brüno wasn’t as well-received as Borat, but that scene where Paula Abdul sits on a Mexican gardener while talking about her charity work? Doesn’t that tell you all you need to know about Hollywood’s relationship with giving? Will you ever be able to erase that from your memory? Whereas this film? I think I can feel it disappearing from my mind even as I am trying to remember it. It’s not bad, but neither is it satirical, courageous or daring. It exploits an audience’s prejudices rather than challenges them. It’s Baron Cohen going at 50mph rather than 100mph, but as he is better at half-speed than most other comedians are at their full-speed, this is not going to come between us either. ‘And the jam,’ I would add.

The Dictator, which is earnestly dedicated to the memory of Kim Jong-il, stars Baron Cohen as Admiral General Aladeen, supreme leader and ‘loving oppressor’ of the African nation, Widiya. In Widiya, he rigs the Olympics so he always wins — you can see this on the trailer, just as all the best jokes are on the trailer, actually — lives in a golden palace and pays Megan Fox for sex, although she won’t stay for an all-night cuddle. From this we are, I think, meant to construe that Aladeen is quite lonely, but as not much attention is paid to character, because it’s not that kind of film — instead, it hops from elaborate comic set-piece to elaborate comic set-piece — it is never fully developed. The chaotic plot is more the thing.

Aladeen has a brother, Tamir (Ben Kingsley, in full stern Ben Kingsleyish mode), who believes he is the rightful heir to the throne. Tamir plots to overthrow Aladeen, encouraging him to address the UN in New York where he hopes an assassination attempt will wipe him out for good. Aladeen arrives in America, ‘the birth place of Aids!’ Checks into his hotel, ‘$20 for internet, and they call me a terrorist? Keep away from the mini-bar! Rip off!’ But, through a series of events I can’t be bothered to go into, he ends up debearded and wandering the streets of Manhattan before being rescued by Zoey (Anna Faris).

Zoey is a feminist and boss of a fair-trade grocery store that only employs asylum seekers, and has both small breasts and hairy armpits. During their initial encounters, Aladeen calls her ‘little man’, which made me laugh quite a lot. He soon falls for her, via all sorts of jokes at the expense of women, lefties and ethnic minorities, and although some of the one-liners are funny, they also seem disappointingly easy targets.

Any heft it has comes from deliberately gross-out moments, including a relationship cemented in amniotic fluid (don’t ask) and a self-pleasuring scene filmed as if it were Deborah Kerr and Burt Lancaster rolling in the waves. Nice. As for satire, it doesn’t properly figure until Aladeen gives a speech at the end. It’s all a bit scrappy, is what I’m saying, but I wouldn’t tell Sacha that. Instead, I would say, ‘And the honey, if you don’t mind.’