05/29/2012 11:37 am ET Updated Jul 29, 2012

The Dictator 's Politics?

Thoughts On Sacha Baron Cohen's The Dictator

Some audiences have greeted Sacha Baron Cohen's latest comedy, The Dictator, with the same enthusiasm for the English comedian's relentless in-your-face ribald humor of his previous efforts as characters Ali G., Borat, and Brüno. Others have seen The Dictator as a baldly aggressive transformation of his naïve, fish-out-of-water characters into an intentional derision of the Arab world.

The Dictator, Baron Cohen's first narrative comedy, tells the story of a North African dictator, "Supreme leader General Admiral Aladeen," ruler of the fictitious oil-rich country of Wadiya, who like Baron Cohen's previous caricatures, ends up exposing the prejudices of "average" Americans. The British-Jewish (of Persian and Israeli descent) comedian asserts that the Aladeen character is largely based on Muammar Gaddafi, whom Baron Cohen has called "ludicrous" in several interviews; he takes great pains to claim that Aladeen is "not an Arab," -- Aladeen says this explicitly in the film -- and that his film is "not a parody of Arabs, but a parody of people who oppress Arabs."

Baron Cohen insists that he refused to employ the Arabic language. In fact, he sometimes uses Hebrew, but mostly a fake, vaguely Semitic-sounding language, comparable to the German-sounding nonsense his implicit model, Charlie Chaplin famously invented for The Great Dictator. Nor does Baron Cohen use Arabic script or anything close to real Arabic architecture. However, Baron Cohen's efforts to concoct a "fake" culture remain ambiguous, just as his distinction between oppressive dictators and the people they oppress is not always clear in the film -- except perhaps when Aladeen stumbles into the Wadiyan restaurant filled with former citizens whom he thought he had killed.

Palestinian-American/Italian-American comedian Dean Obeidallah called the film a "minstrel show" of Arabs in "buffoonish 'brownface' " and complained that while it's fine to send up anyone from any culture, Baron Cohen excludes Arabs from the major roles in his film and thereby misses his chance not only to give the film an "inside" and more "authentic" feel, but ends up potentially racist by virtue of exclusion. To be sure, "Tamir" is played by Ben Kinsley who is British-Indian (though of Muslim and Jewish descent) and "Nadal" is played by Greek-American Jason Mantzoukas. There are many more pointed attacks on the film from both the left and right as well as from the extremist fringe, which rejects The Dictator as "Zionist propaganda" and its director as a "Zionist shill."

Israelis too remain uncertain what to make of the film. Haaretz political and Jewish affairs columnist Anshel Pfeffer claimed "Sacha Baron Cohen's The Dictator commits crimes against comedy," and felt embarrassed by the film, describing his experience as similar to watching a "porn" film in a public theater.

Meanwhile, defenders of the film -- including many who Tweeted their amusement with the film in Arabic and English, claim that Baron Cohen merely offers his usual blanket attack on all groups: from Hollywood stars, to politically correct new-age groceries, to dictatorships and corporate corruption around the world. especially the American variety. The very short list of real-world politicians attacked by name in the film include both Dick Cheney and Mahmoud Ahmadenijad; in fact the list of named celebrities from the entertainment world is longer. The Dictator is shooting in a lot of directions.

Yet, Baron Cohen's infamous "take-no-prisoners" style is not entirely successful, throwing many flatly unfunny moments at the audience. No one laughed at the jokes when Cohen's character General Admiral Aladeen made reference to having molested "14 year old boys." Child abuse isn't funny. Nor were there many laughs when the corrupt Chinese minister, played by Korean-American actor Bobby Lee, insulted his heavily-made-up, dead-fox-wearing wife in English, which she supposedly didn't understand. No one seemed amused either, when the dictator's naïve bumbling, goatherd body-double gets shot in the head and the bullet is said to have "only gone through his brain."

In fact, many of these signature Baron Cohen squirm-inducing awful moments in the film appear orchestrated to help distance the director and his writers from assertions that the film is singularly anti-anyone. Still, Cohen remains selective in his offenses, which produces a somewhat incoherent political vision in the film -- if there can be said to be one at all.

One critic from the American right derided Baron Cohen's "ideology" as expressed in a speech near the end of the film that suggests that the "real dictatorship" might well be the United States. Baron Cohen's description of America as a dictatorship invokes a European and American leftist critique of the US for its "1% wealthy, who rule," its corruption, homeland security, and the imprisonment of "one ethnic group" -- just in case the audience misses this point, the camera cuts abruptly to an African American in the audience. For an instant, Baron Cohen seems to offer a position, which one might take seriously rather than derisively, especially as his character seemed to have become "humanized" through his love for the politically-correct Zoey. At the culmination of the speech, in what comes as close as one gets to a message moment, Baron Cohen's Aladeen even calls for a "true democracy," instead of the corrupt geo-political capitalism of the scheming Tamir, the Chinese minister and other "tyrants."

Alas, a year later, back in Wadiya, nothing seems to have changed. "True democracy" turns out to be no better than corrupt democracy. The people seem equally oppressed by their ever-opulent leader. Aladeen is horrified when he discovers that Zoey is Jewish, and when she turns out to be pregnant, he asks "is it a boy or an abortion?"

What can be made of this confusion that irritates all political sensibilities?

In the end, only one thing is clear: Baron Cohen has made a politically ambiguous often-funny and often crude comedy that fabulously explores the dictatorial soul, while also missing the opportunity to include more North Africans in the creative process -- which might have given some voice to those who actually lived under a North African dictator. The film also passed up a chance to embrace the Arab Spring and its ideals. In interviews Baron Cohen asserts that he began his film before the Arab Spring, but surely in the last year and a half he had time, as filmmakers usually do, to revise and update.

Perhaps Aladeen's continued oppression of people of Wadiya is a comment on the failures of the Arab Spring? After all, those throngs before the film's palace in the end seem to resemble many of the North African voices who demonstrated for their rights in Egypt and who continue to be killed in Syria. At a historical moment when the Assad dictatorship continues in full force and none of the candidates from Tahrir Square are in the run-off in the Egyptian election -- Baron Cohen's description of the durability of authoritarian rule lays claim to some truth, no matter how embedded in the screwball comedy genre.

As is, The Dictator only leaves its audiences with an image of continued oppression, for which there can't be many laughs, even as audiences often giggled (and often cringed) at some of Baron Cohen's genuinely funny antics. It's an ambiguity that recalls the central problem of Chaplin's Hitler parody, The Great Dictator: how to get good laughs out of a deadly serious situation.