(MINOR SPOILER WARNING)
I’ve probably watched about 100 different episodes of South Park in the last few weeks and I’ve gotten a sense of how the creators of that show work with the writing when it comes to satire. Even the South Park movie in all of it’s brilliance not only manages to dish out the outrageous moments, but it’s all in support of the subject being satirized in the story. With The Dictator, there’s something off about it, and it gets distracted from where it set out from in the first place. I haven’t seen Borat or Bruno yet, so I don’t really have a comparison to make in regards to The Dictator. All the same people responsible for those two films worked on this one, so I walked into this expecting it to be shocking and offensive on some level. The movie does have some great laughs and a few outrageous moments. But it doesn’t really go for the throat in terms of shock value. In fact, it’s relatively tame.
Part of the problem is that the more outrageous moments don’t really feel in service to the satire. The films most shocking parts feel arbitrary, and when the film’s comedy actually comments on the subject of a dictatorship, most of the humor is too tame. In most cases, I felt it holds back too much, making too many throwaway jokes about what an asshole Aladeen is than really making any sort of commentary. One example of how the film holds back on itself is when we find out later in the film that all of the people Aladeen (Sacha Baron Cohen) ordered to be executed are never really killed, but that the person in charge of the executions was anti-fascist and had all the prisoners exported to New York to live as free citizens. This was done, most likely, because they films creators want us to feel for Aladeen’s change at the end of the story, so they invalidate him as a murderer (and while I’m aware there’s a Waadeya olympics scene where Aladeen shoots his competitors in the race, it doesn’t necessarily mean the people he shot are dead).
But really, why should we have to feel something for Aladeen? Does he really have to change at the end of the story? This is satire after all. The change in him could have been completely false and it wouldn’t have mattered. In fact it would be truer to his character. What we have instead is a weak romance angle where Aladeen falls in love and ultimately gives up his principles of dictatorship in favor of democracy, giving up everything he believes in over a woman. He settles down, and for me that’s just false. I think going for this typical Hollywood ending was the wrong choice for the filmmakers. The love story wasn’t necessary, and considering all the things the film wants to say about fascism and the Middle East, because of Aladeen’s change, I felt that the satire suddenly lost it’s power and didn’t make the kind of impact it was striving for.
The stuff that does work in favor of the subject matter works really well. The scene from the trailers where Aladeen and Omar are dressed as American tourists in the helicopter is a lot funnier in the actual film. The films beginning telling the story of Aladeen from birth to adulthood was funny as well. Some of the shock value scenes had their moments (the vagina cam was pretty funny), but like I said most of the shock scenes don’t really contribute to the overall story, and really lessens their impact overall.
I don’t think the film went where it should of gone. It tries to call attention to itself with shocking gross out humor, but really its overall message is just too safe. Americans don’t need a reaffirmation of their beliefs in democracy, they seriously need to be unsettled. That’s what I expected this film to do, considering the people who were making it, and I was left unsatisfied. I’ve learned a thing or two from South Park about what makes satire work, and what I’ve found out is if you really want to hit people at home, you don’t hold back, you go all the way. This is a film that tries to go there, but gives in at the very end. It feels more like the hand of studio politics (where they won’t risk truly offending people) than being the vision of an inspired filmmaker.