by James Killough
I said on Monday that I would never see The Dictator, not even if I secured my favorite seat, C-22 in the handicapped section at the Arclight Hollywood, which is exactly where I saw it from last night. I am allowed to go back on my word because my evil twin Andrew Sullivan flip-flopped about Obama last week, so now it’s all the rage.
Let me clarify, however: flip-flopping actually means something completely different to Gheys than changing your mind. I assure you that I will never go to that point. No, really. Sullivan may engage in the gay version of flip-flopping to his heart’s content, but this total top’s sphincter remains puckered shut, never more so since seeing The Dictator.
What persuaded me to go? Peter Bradshaw of The Guardian. It’s entirely his fault. He should be taken out and executed. He gave it an unbelievable four stars out of five, which I can only attribute to some sort of bizarre reverse schadenfreude whereby the liberal British media, so beleaguered by harsh austerity measures imposed by a flip-flopping coalition government, wish every British citizen to do well abroad with the hopes they’ll take pity and send something back home. Either that or Bradshaw was just plain bribed.
You’ve seen the trailer, you get it: Dictator is a mash-up of Eddie Murphy’s Coming to America and Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator from a script that might have been penned by a junior writer on South Park that was rejected after Matt Stone and Trey Parker read the first ten pages. A North African dictator is forced under the threat of military action from the West to address the United Nations, but is stripped of his identity just beforehand and must spend five days trying to get it back before an imbecile body double is coerced into signing a document that turns the Republic of Wadiya into a democracy.
As Carter Administration official Bert Lance once said, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” There was everything right with the way Cohen made Borat: relatively cheaply, inventively, and in a mockumentary style that Cohen should never have abandoned any more than Chaplin should have talked. Making this big, bloated Will Ferrell type of Hollywood lowbrow broad comedy undermines what Cohen is all about; despite his obscene, puerile antics, Cohen is far more subversive and sophisticated than any of his American counterparts working at that level.
Cohen is a victim of his own fame. As a household name, an instantly recognizable face, he no longer has the element of genuine surprise that allowed him to dupe so many American rubes in Borat, which helped underscore just what an ugly bunch we can be. Shows like Simpsons, Family Guy and South Park get away with slamming America because they are basically animated political satire cartoons from the Sunday papers, a venerable tradition. But they are still just cartoons, funny but harmless because of their un-realness, well within the parameters of what most Americans believe is “free speech,” which is free provided you don’t seriously criticize this Blessed Land. If you do that, then you need to move somewhere else. Cohen’s playing around with real people and putting them in situations that exposed their meanness, bigotries and hypocrisies was genius on a level of, yes, Chaplin’s.
That a star with a talent the magnitude of Cohen’s needs four writers (including himself) to bang out a mediocre ninety-minute script is testament to how even the biggest name, who single-handedly turned the eighteen-million-dollar Borat into a two-hundred-eighty-million hit, is subject to the tyrannies of the studios. Why, it’s almost meta in that respect. If I were so inclined, I believe I could go back and pinpoint fairly accurately what is Cohen’s and what was forced on him in rewrites. I’ll bet his own early drafts were hilarious, but perhaps too insurrectionary?
Dictator has a production budget over three times the size of Borat’s, but won’t make anywhere near the same amount. This doesn’t include the marketing budget, the relentless commericals on TV and online, the stunts at the Oscars and in London, the billboards everywhere, the print ads. As of this writing, Dictator is set to open weaker than What to Expect While You’re Expecting. Ouch.
There is one scene in Dictator that is almost on a level of the nude wrestling bout in Borat. Forced to work in an organic food store in Brooklyn, Cohen the Dictator and his love interest deliver a baby after a pregnant woman goes into labor in one of the aisles. Had I already been warmed up by laughing heartily since the beginning, my humor hormones on high, my sides cramping, I might have lost it during this scene and more than ever been grateful for seat C-22 because I could have thrashed about and maybe have even fallen to the floor. As it was, I had already forced myself to stay put three times and not walk out, so I was nowhere near the level Cohen needed me to be at to skewer home this coup de grace.
Indeed, it was like attending the funeral of career of a man I once held in high regard. I felt wretched for Cohen, not at all happy the mighty have fallen, and with such a loud thud. I’m being maudlin, of course: Cohen’s talent is too prodigious for his career to end with this disaster, it just needs to be redirected. And that redirection will likely become more apparent when he takes on more traditional roles as Sherlock Holmes and Freddy Mercury in a forthcoming biopic directed by Stephen Frears. Now that I will be at a midnight screening for, if not twisting someone’s arm to get me into a press screening.
I was thinking of being soft on Cohen because I do admire him. I can see the challenges he must have faced making this with all the studio tinkering. To his credit, there is that birth scene, as well as the Big Monologue Moment, in which he underscores how Americans live under the illusion of freedom when the man on the street is in fact oppressed by the vagaries of Wall Street and by a corrupt democratic process. In light of that, I was going to let him get away with a “meh,” or two stars. But this needs to be an act of tough love, so I’ll call Dictator for what it is: