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Crude Comedy, Sound Politics: What ‘The Dictator’ Gets Right

True story: I’m on the sunny sidewalk outside Sacha Baron Cohen’s The Dictator, and out of the theater saunters one of my fellow audience members, dressed in slacks and Islamic headscarf of a sort that is pretty conventional in south Brooklyn, and she doesn’t mind a casual exchange of views. “I have to tell you,” she says, “it was offensive to a lot of people.” She reflects a little more. “It was funny, though.” Her gaze falls on Court Street. “I laughed.” She laughs. “I loved it!”—and she breaks into a gloriously sheepish smile. I tell her, “I liked the part where he falls in love.” She looks at me like, what are you, stupid?—then adds in self-exculpation, “The movies are supposed to be fun!” And off she goes, nearly skipping down the afternoon street.

The part where he falls in love comes when the Baron Cohen character, General Aladeen, dictator of Wadiya, having made his way to New York to address the United Nations, ends up working at a lefty feminist grocery co-op in Brooklyn. The co-op manager turns out to be an ultra-authoritarian of political correctness, a sort of fascist. And the dictator melts. He melts still more when the co-op manager liberates him sexually by teaching him to masturbate. The Dictator is a gross-out movie. And the meltdown reaches completion when, in the course of orating against the evils of democracy, he notices her cute little perky face in the audience, and his speech veers into a defense of democracy. Under democracy, he observes, a woman might fall for a man even if her father were not being tortured in the next room; and he is in love.

My fellow audience-member may have been right about me. Still, the essential realism of the scene becomes clear at the end of the movie when the dictator, having proclaimed democracy in Wadiya, has been elected president with 98 percent of the vote and marries the Brooklyn co-op manager—only to discover that she is Jewish, which leads him to order her execution.

Then the credits roll and you watch a series of pointless outtakes that must have struck the director as too amusing to omit from the movie. And it is right to watch, not because anything worth seeing appears on screen but because, with a movie of this nature, you try to get your money’s worth.

Do I have to take The Dictator seriously? I am sitting in the backyard of an oyster bar across from the theater with a plate of oysters and a glass of wine in front of me, and honestly the film has put me into too genial a mood to quarrel with failed jokes and occasional doldrums. Suddenly I recognize the movie’s appeal. The movie is about Brooklyn—the real-life Brooklyn of annoying P.C. nitwits, embittered émigrés from desert tyrannies, echoes of the crisis in the Muslim world, people from far-away who reinvent themselves, yellow taxis, lingering memories of 9/11, and the varieties of bad taste. Art is gusto or nothing, and The Dictator displays, on these local themes, sufficient gusto to while away an afternoon.

Maybe there’s not a whole lot of hydrogen in this balloon. And yet! In the matter of dictator movies, I prefer Baron Cohen to, say, Walter Salles, the director of a movie about Che Guevara. The Dictator is anti-dictator. The film even makes a semi-profound point near the end by observing that, as of our own moment, the dreadful dictators of modern times have fallen—Qaddafi, Saddam, Cheney—and goes on to observe that, even so, dreadful dictatorships may not, in fact, be at an end: a subtle contradiction, a footnote to the End of History thesis. Then, too, the dictator observes that democracy is not much different from dictatorship, except for the parts that are better, and maybe democracy is a great thing, after all, even if it’s not perfect. This particular display of political nuance is not offered with any equivalent filmmaking nuance. Baron Cohen’s technique is to stand up and lecture at us. Here is a film that is not about filmmaking. It’s a good lecture, though. I would even say that, politically speaking, Sacha Baron Cohen is—I hate to use this word, it ought to mean death to any artist—sound.

The misogyny and shock-jokes seem to me mostly a fig leaf which, in the modern style, consists of genitalia instead of covering them. You will see this for yourself if you sit through the childbirth scene with its trans-vaginal cell phone and its moment of amorous intra-uterine hand-holding—though maybe, now that I reflect more deeply, parts of The Dictator were, in truth, a bit much. But look what has happened: My glass is empty, the oysters have disappeared, the sun is setting, an hour has gone by, and I have begun to speak about the movie in the past tense. 

Paul Berman is a contributing editor for The New Republic.