“A popular Government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy; or, perhaps both.” — James Madison
For more than a decade, Sacha Baron Cohen has reigned supreme over the world of cinematic prank satire. Following the sublimely awkward delights of his “Da Ali G Show” TV series, Cohen transformed two of his seminal characters — Kazakh journalist Borat and Austrian fashion reporter Brüno — into the heroes of a pair of lacerating big-screen exposés of American ignorance. But the master prankster was a victim of his own success; he’d so brilliantly skewered his targets that he’d become too famous to sneak up on subjects and blindside them with unexpected questions. As a result, Cohen’s latest film, “The Dictator,” represented a major break — and a big step backward — from his established aesthetic. Its surprising lack of edge left the door open for a usurper to upstage and overthrow Cohen, and to take his title as the king of elaborate movie punkings.
Cohen’s newest creation is Admiral General Shabazz Aladeen, the bumbling, hateful ruler of the imaginary North African country of Wadiya. The ludicrous and often hypocritical world of international politics would seem a fertile one for Cohen’s attack dog techniques; and it does provide him the raw materials for a brilliant comic monologue about the very thin line between Aladeen’s style of dictatorship and America’s supposedly superior “democracy.” But most of “The Dictator” barely qualifies as political satire; after an assassination attempt, Aladeen goes into hiding in Brooklyn, where he accepts a job at a vegan health food store owned by Anna Faris’ Zoey. That leads to a lot of fish-in-the-barrel comedy at the expense of granola-eating hipsters and a hefty amount of dick-and-poop humor about Aladeen and Zoey’s oil-and-water romance. To the best of my knowledge, Aladeen never interacts with any real people in the movie, and Cohen looks a little lost without his signature hook. It’s like watching Mr. Rogers sing without a cardigan sweater; it just doesn’t look right.
While Cohen was retiring his old techniques, another filmmaker was adopting them to make his own brutal political satire. “The Dictator” opens with a mocking title card: “In Loving Memory of Kim Jong Il.” For his first film, “The Red Chapel,” Danish director Mads Brügger actually snuck into North Korea as a member of a supposed cultural exchange. In Brügger’s latest, “The Ambassador,” he plays an even more Cohenesque character: a crooked European businessman named Mads Cortzen who buys a diplomatic title from a shady online brokerage in an attempt to smuggle blood diamonds out of the Central African Republic. Disguised as “the Liberian consul and ambassador at large to the CAR,” Brügger takes meetings with real African diplomats and members of the CAR’s government, and aligns himself with an ambitious miner in an effort to use his phony ambassadorship to gain access to the country’s black market for diamonds.
As Ali G, Borat, and Bruno, Cohen was a fearless performer, but Brügger is downright reckless; a huge portion of his budget must have gone towards the payoffs he uses to bribe his way into the CAR’s inner circles, where he regularly meets men who would probably kill him if they learned about the true nature of his trip to Africa. Cohen traditionally plays the fool; Brugger, in contrast, plays a cold, calculating snake, with plans for exploitation so venal someone would surely call his bluff if everyone around him wasn’t as legitimately corrupt as Brügger is pretending to be. In fact, as the movie progresses, Brügger begins to find himself hustled by the very men he’s trying to game. They out-scheme the schemer — and they’re doing it for real, not as a put-on.
“The Ambassador” lacks “The Dictator”‘s traditional three-act structure, and it doesn’t resolve so much as it stops. Viewed in tandem, though, the anticlimactic ending feels right. Cohen’s toothless, simplistic portrait of dictatorship is completely righted by the love of a good woman and a lengthy masturbation sequence (no, really). If only things were that simple; Brügger shows us an Africa too troubled to be fixed in 90 minutes. His movie features a different kind of gross-out humor, where he shows us humanity at its worst and leaves it up to us to decide whether to laugh or cry. In its best moments, “The Ambassador” is both a farce and a tragedy.
“The Dictator” is now available on DVD and Blu-ray. “The Ambassador” is now playing New York. It opens Friday in select cities and is currently available on VOD everywhere.