In the third team-up between director Larry Charles and actor Sacha Baron Cohen, The Dictator will open in theaters this Wednesday. Despite receiving some mixed reviews, the film is currently pulling a passable 72% “freshness rating” from critics on Rotten Tomatoes and has generated a fair amount of buzz anticipating its release. While it appears to be far from high comedy, Cohen’s latest is a fully “democratic” film that holds neither man nor institution sacred, and it will probably play well during its short life span.
I had some initial assumptions about the movie when I first heard about it, but one review in particular struck me as being especially insightful. It comes from an Irish blogger named Darren, who wrote, “ … the movie does have some significant flaws. It is funny, and consistently so, but it also feels strangely conventional.”
It is an interesting word to use – “conventional” – for a movie that cracks jokes about rape, environmentalists, genocide, Israel, “the 1 percent,” 9/11, and child abuse, while also featuring scenes that make light of decapitation and dumping urine on U.N. officials. Darren describes this style of comedy as “throwing everything at the wall in an attempt to see what sticks,” and this seems like a pretty accurate description.
But really, I think this should strike us as a bit amazing. We have the ability to laugh at and make light of absolutely anything – no institution or human being is beyond the scope of the laughable. Indeed, Darren even entertains thoughts of sympathizing with Cohen’s character because he doesn’t actually have to see any of the terrible things that the movie makes fun of. That can’t happen, of course – “obviously they’d ruin the comedy” – but it should make us pause to see just how detached and unfeeling we’ve become with these types of films. This is the sort of apathy feared by someone like Alexis de Tocqueville.
Now Americans are, more than most things, a very comic people; we’re comfortable making jokes about anything and everything. Oddly enough, this comes from our fully democratic faith in the true and basic equality of all men – the result being that no man is “above” humor, and no event or institution beyond irreverence. A movie like The Dictator speaks directly to us: it’s wide-ranging humor spares no one, and it laughs in the face of something like an authoritarian dictatorship still existing in the 21st century. Yet in all that we’ve sacrificed for the sake of democratic comedy, all that we can simply “laugh off,” one wonders what we still have left to take seriously. I wonder if, instead of “The Dictator,” the world will one day have to fear “The Democrat.”