Excruciating is not a word that comes to mind as a recommendation. Yet Sacha Baron Cohen’s first feature, the mockumentary Borat, if not exactly pleasurable, proved capable of producing such intense fight-or-flight responses that it remains one of the weirdest in-theater experiences of my life. At the matinee I attended, once the Borat audience realized that most of the on-screen risk-taking and taste violations were actually happening, not faked or scripted, they reacted to the audacity and, yes, courage, of Baron Cohen like a zoo full of rhesus monkeys.
This movie is another kind of excruciating, even though I went in thinking there is no finer guilty pleasure than a matinee. Directed by Borat’s Larry Charles, whose credits include seasons of such modest successes as Seinfeld, Curb Your Enthusiasm and Entourage, the travails of Baron Cohen’s Middle Eastern tyrant accidentally shorn of beard and identity while on a trip to the United Nations seemed to have its ducks all in a row: the toppling of dictators in the “Arab Spring,” the ongoing tensions over Iran’s nuclear program, and a bona fide American Presidential election to cherry-pick for satirical purposes.
Sure enough, Baron Cohen’s desert tyrant character, modeled on Libya’s Gaddafi, has the all-female bodyguards that accompanied his recent appearance on Jon Stewart. He has the world-view of an anti-Semitic mass murderer whose knee-jerk opinions and hypermasculinity are so extreme that they are unavoidably comic, especially when excused by the manager of the Brooklyn eco-store and co-op, played by an inspired Anna Faris, who gives him asylum. Anyone who has passed their hipster saturation point will appreciate Faris’ crunchy granola rationalization for The Dictator’s raunch: The only way a human being could be this bad is if he were abused as a child.
But once we glimpse The Arc of Redemption lurking in the scenery, and sense that stars will align in order for Baron Cohen and Faris to find love and promote transparent and free elections, the script begins to feel desperate. The humor gets grosser and more obvious, as does the plot (involving the old standby, a double for The Dictator, plus Ben Kingsley as the scheming power behind the throne and the usual oil companies jockeying to take over leases once democracy ousts Baron Cohen).
A dumb plot can be great fun: witness Zoolander. But The Dictator runs afoul of The First Law of Shock Humor: for the laughs to come, somebody has to be clueless and thus the butt of an inevitably cruel joke. Baron Cohen and Charles never find that character.
In Borat, the clueless included the Romanian villagers asked to impersonate Kazakhstani anti-Semites in an annual “Kill the Jew” parade, an American rodeo in which Baron Cohen warbled his “Kazakhstani” version of “The Star-Spangles Banner.” Not surprisingly, lawsuits followed. In the pre-publicity for The Dictator, Baron Cohen was quoted as saying he was the most sued filmmaker in history.
The Dictator poses no such risks, because, hamstrung by having his cover blown, Baron Cohen and director Charles have made the safe (and perhaps only) decision–to make the entire movie a fiction. From the opening scenes we are in B-movie parody territory, reminiscent of the vaudevillian skits of The Three Stooges and the Adam Sandler/Judd Apatow comedy ensembles. At times even Baron Cohen looks like he can’t quite believe the predicament he’s gotten himself into. I could see him wondering if the joke might be on him.