In one sense, Sacha Baron Cohen is returning to his roots of extremely offensive comedy. On the other hand, he abandons the format of his previous character comedies and replaces it with a structured story. Unfortunately this structure sets up the jokes way before the punch line, removing much of the desired effect.
The heroic story of a North African dictator Aladeen who risks his life to ensure that democracy will never come to the country he so lovingly oppressed. (Synopsis by Paramount)
At worst, this is a film in search of itself. There are elements that are done quite well. As ill-defined and shallow as the character Aladeen comes off, Cohen manages to wrangle some comedy out of him. The deadpan banter between Cohen and his comedian co-stars is on point most of the time. Baltimore’s own Anna Faris, playing Zoey, the unshaven owner of a food co-op, is the subject of most of the best zingers. His list of names for her (Wolverina, Justin Bieber’s chubby double) is consistently funny.
Things fall apart in the scenes in between during which the actual story needs to be told. Playing out more like dinner theater than a Hollywood film, the parts never feel cohesive or even coherent. The stereotypes, especially the Arabic, are broad brushed to such a degree it seems that Cohen went out of his way not to be too offensive. Of course this was still too offensive to a few Arabs, but the joke was probably lost on them from the beginning.
Case in point CNN’s Dean Obeidallah, who decries Cohen’s brown face as the lowest form of comedy. Granted, it is offensive. It is meant to be so. Of course, Dean and his ilk are strangely silent on the stereotypical depiction of the other characters in the film including women and other minority groups. But where Dean misses the joke in his outrage over his heritage’s depiction (by the way, Dean grew up in New Jersey), is when Cohen turns the film on its head at the end.
While it is a bit preachy, the film concludes with a tongue-in-cheek comparison of the traits of a dictator and the plight of the average American in the current economic crisis. So what is more offensive? The grossly disproportionate stereotypes of a comedian known to push that envelope or the average American who now finds himself in economic bondage due to the actions and decisions of a select few?
If you have any knowledge of Cohen’s work, you know what you are getting into before you purchase your ticket. This is not the best of his character-based films and in many ways is a step back from his lauded roles in “Sweeney Todd” and “Hugo.” On the other hand, as he now is well-known it may be impossible for him to reverse course and play truly candid roles. Let’s hope in the future that he shoots for the highbrow parts–or at least hires a better writer.
“See It/ Rent It/ Skip It”: Rent it. Be offended. Write a strongly worded letter to your congressman. Or try having a sense of humor.
TWO STARS out of four.
Directed by Larry Charles.
Rated R for strong crude and sexual content, brief male nudity, language and some violent images.
Runtime: 1 hr. 23 min.