The Dictator (2012)

Rating: ★★★★☆ 

I’m never quite certain how to rate comedies, because what makes us laugh is so thoroughly subjective. I’m absolutely mystified, for example, by a user review that I just read on the IMDb that claimed there wasn’t a laugh to be found in The Dictator.

Reading something like that, an unflattering image of that reviewer immediately came to mind: I imagined him sitting in a darkened room in small apartment where he lives alone, the light from his computer monitor emphasizing the sneer curling his lip–a sneer that evinces a bile-filled hatred for all things whimsical and mirthful. His figurative stick is planted so far up his ass that he has totally forgotten it’s up there. If he had a lawn, he would surely be telling the neighborhood kids to get off of it.

Whatever your opinion is about The Dictator, if you didn’t laugh once, I’ve got to figure there’s something seriously wrong with you–you’ve had your sense of humor amputated or something. I don’t know. The following review is not for you.

Whatever else this movie is, I think there’s one thing at least to recommend about it–it’s damn funny. At least, in my subjective opinion.

On the surface, this is pretty obviously meant to be a satire of…well…almost everything, from oppressive dictatorial regimes, to oil companies, to ignorant stereotypes embraced by insular American white guys, to vegan feminists. The Dictator takes a sort of chaotic, shotgun approach to its targets, not sparing any sacred cows, but not exactly presenting anything meant to provoke deep thought, either. The satire exists purely in the interest of furthering the cause of the laughs in this film, and for no other reason. The moment the viewer takes this film seriously for even half a second is the point at which that viewer has clearly missed the point entirely.

This is not Borat, which attempted to reflect American society back at us through the eyes of its casually racist naif of a protagonist, and employed an hilarious (if often cringe-inducing) blend of scripted sequences and comedic improvisation with unwitting participants in order to do so. Yes, it’s true that Sasha Baron Cohen has fallen back on the trusty fish-out-of-water proposition that served him so well in Borat, and perhaps less well in Bruno (which I liked, to be sure), but what you have to understand going in is that this is a roundly different film from those others.

The primary, obvious difference is that it’s totally scripted, and to that end, is held together by some sort of conventional narrative, albeit a mockery of threadbare romcoms. But the other difference that seems apparent to me is that I honestly don’t believe Cohen has even the faintest trace of a message that he’s trying to convey here. All he and his collaborators have done is to see the funny in a world that is often overly serious.

The trappings suggest that he’s interested in lampooning the Arab Spring (and maybe to some extent, the Western lust for spreading its cultural values across the globe in the form of democracy–no matter how ludicrous an embodiment of democracy) but it’s really all just a springboard for this wonderful character that Cohen has invented, a sort of live-action cartoon caricature.

This is totally frivolous filmmaking (which isn’t to say it isn’t very smart at points–because it certainly is), and I wouldn’t say it’s essential viewing for anybody. But it is hella funny. I found myself gasping for air more than a few times. That was enough for me.

Edit: Nearly as funny as this movie are the comments by people who hated it. My god, there are some truly miserable people in this world. And the hilarious thing about it is that most of them are outraged about how mean-spirited the film allegedly is, blind to the irony that the comments they have for Sasha Baron Cohen (and typically by extension, anybody who liked the film) are totally douchey.

On a related note, I’ve got some advice for people who get accused of having no sense of humor. Don’t respond to that accusation with a blistering tirade, because you just proved the person’s point.