There are two mainstream comedies with “dictator” in the title writes Liam Mac Uaid . One of them ends with the main character addressing his cinema audiences with the message “Now let us fight to free the world! To do away with national barriers! To do away with greed, with hate and intolerance! Let us fight for a world of reason, a world where science and progress will lead to the happiness of us all.” The other ends with the main character ordering his wife to be executed because she is Jewish and he is, we assume, Muslim.
Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator was a contemporary lampooning of Hitler and Mussolini. Sasha Baron-Cohen’s Dictator is his exploitation of the comic potential of butchers like Assad, Saddam Hussein and most obviously Gaddafi and there’s no denying that there is an absurd side to them. Even in relatively liberal Jordan every traffic island and half the billboards have posters of the king dressed in a comic opera general’s uniform, riding a horse or winning the world tiddlywinks championship.
Now at this point a confession is in order. Bruno and Borat were, in my opinion, very funny throughout and it’s thanks to the former that I got to learn of anal bleaching. The Dictator is a much more patchy affair. It’s the comedy of outrageous offensiveness contained in a plot that the Carry On team would have rejected as overly conventional. Given that it’s inspiration is the revolutionary processes in the Arab world it makes some nods towards politics. So we have Ben Kingsley as the dictator’s uncle planning his murder so that he can sell of the country’s oil to foreign oil companies for a thirty percent “finder’s fee”. Perhaps one day we’ll find out how Kingsley feels about a career path that has taken him from Gandhi to co-starring in a film where the comedic highlights include Sasha Baron-Cohen defecating while suspended between two buildings and learning how to pleasure himself.
The anti-globalisation movement gets a plug too and a pretty positive one. Explaining the advantages of dictatorship to his New York audience Aladeen observes these include one percent of society keeping ninety nine percent of the wealth, giving tax breaks to rich friends, being able to torture foreigners and locking up large numbers of black people. However the demand of an ultra-conventional plot required the film to end with him being restored as dictator back home and marrying the radical feminist New Yorker who had befriended him. Then for no apparent reason than all Arabs hate all Jews he orders her to be killed. This wasn’t comically offensive. It was an ugly bowing of the knee to the Fox News world view that the film’s makers know will not be rare in the big American multiplexes.
It has a few good laughs but the main thing you learn from this film is that mainstream entertainment which ostensibly aims to float above politics can be very politically subtle. It also enhances your appreciation of Charlie Chaplin’s real artistic courage even if you don’t find his films funny.