Fuck what you heard: The Dictator is one of the best films of the year

Friday June 1st 2012

If you’ve visited this blog even once before, you’ll probably have some awareness of my love for the 2004 teen comedy EuroTrip. In the last year alone, I’ve organised the first UK screening of the film since its original release, written 2000 words about it here, and even self-published a fanzine on the subject — excerpts from which are available here. So you can imagine my excitement when, last year, the film’s writer-directors Jeff Schaffer, Alec Berg and David Mandel announced that they would finally be returning to the big screen — after eight years writing for Curb Your Enthusiasm — to collaborate with Sacha Baron Cohen on a new political comedy.

Right from the opening credits (which brazenly proclaim the film ‘A Berg Schaffer Mandel Production’) it’s clear that The Dictator is a logical step forward for the threesome. Underpinning its broad, scattershot sense of humour with a firm satirical backbone, the film’s the closest thing to a EuroTrip sequel we’re ever likely to get, and a $65million sequel at that. It’s really no wonder Cohen joined forces with the trio: their throw-everything-at-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks approach to scriptwriting is a perfect match for his confrontational brand of character comedy, especially as it moves out of mockumentary and into traditional fiction. All four men can also legitimately call themselves equal-opportunity offenders, a hideous term I use only with the caveat that I mean it in the progressive, thoughtful South Park sense rather than the bigoted, closet-racist John Gaunt sense. The Dictator works precisely because of this willingness to take aim at both sides, rightly reiterating The Great Dictator and its disdain for autocracies of any kind, while also turning its satiric gaze back on the audience.

Just as the European cities featured in EuroTrip were knowingly skewed to reflect the expectations of the film’s horny teen protagonists, so too is Cohen’s eccentric leader Admiral General Aladeen less an authentic parody of contemporary dictators than a composite of all the US’s worst fears about the Middle East, terrorism and Islam. Here is a despot who rules for the sake of ruling, finds America laughable rather than intimidating, and — to paraphrase George Bush’s immortal words from his 2001 declaration of the War on Terror — quite literally hates our freedom.

He’s an outlandish anti-hero, executing enemies and allies with equal disregard, not to mention flaunting his predilection for rape — a running joke that’s already seen the film widely condemned by various critics (personally, I found these satirically-motivated, knowingly off-colour gags far less disturbing than those crowbarred queasily into movies like Get Him To The Greek and Horrible Bosses). Even after the film evolves into a relatively lighthearted fish-out-of-water story (helped along by Anna Faris in her best performance since Smiley Face) it’s unapologetic in its refusal to see such a powerful conduit for satire ‘set straight’.

Like EuroTrip, the film requires a number of logical leaps, relies too heavily on cameos and frequently misses the mark entirely. But what it maintains from Schaffer, Berg and Mandel’s earlier film is the understanding that satire is infinitely more powerful when it’s accessible. Nothing in either movie is included simply to be clever; it has to be funny as well. And if the jokes in The Dictator misfire more often than those in EuroTrip, it’s only because they aim wider, at the multiplex audience which that film failed to connect with. The former’s box office success ($95million and counting) would suggest it’s a valid tactic.

Films like The Dictator are hard to market — hence this disaster of a trailer, constructed entirely from the film’s opening reel — because they fall just outside the boundaries of mainstream comedy: not far enough to be alternative but too far to fit into any familiar, easily marketable subgenre. In which case, here’s hoping that the film’s success makes way for a new breed of intelligent but accessible comedy (preferably written by Schaffer and co.) and, of course, the critical reassessment that EuroTrip continues to be denied.