Squint, and Sacha Baron Cohen's and Charlie Chaplin's biographies start to look alike. Both men are British comic film stars. Both have a penchant for slapstick and satirizing the powerful. Both have Jewish roots—or were thought to. So it makes sense that Baron Cohen would eventually get around to re-imagining one of Chaplin's works. The Dictator, out this week, resembles Chaplin's 1940 comedy The Great Dictator in both name and plot: Both movies have stars playing the dual roles of a fascist dictator and the lowly civilian impersonating them. Unsurprisingly, Baron Cohen turns Chaplin's premise upside-down. Surprisingly, he ends up with more potent movie than Chaplin's.
"The movie plays like a comedy followed by an editorial," Roger Ebert wrote of "The Great Dictator."
The Great Dictator basically split Chaplin's time between his two roles: the villainous Hitler send-up "Adenoid Hynkel," and an unnamed heroic Jewish barber who impersonates Hynkel. In Baron Cohen's film, much more camera time is spent with the titular tyrant than with the simple goat herder who switches places with him. Adm. Gen. Shabazz Aladeen is the film's hero, though admittedly not a very sympathetic one. A cartoonish composite of the world's worst leaders, he's oil-rich, murderous, and has dreams of using nuclear weapons against Israel. On a trip to New York City for an appearance at the United Nations, Aladeen is betrayed by an evil uncle (played by Ben Kingsley, always delighted with roles at odds with the Gandhi portrayal that defined him). He enlists the help of the unwitting Zoey (Anna Faris), a feminist, vegan, organic food store manager straight out of Portlandia.
As with all of Baron Cohen's work, The Dictator's comedy comes from confrontation, and the humor is outrageous. At one point, Aladeen asks a pregnant woman if she is expecting "a boy or an abortion." Chaplin's humor, the other hand, was based on pathos. As embodied by his iconic "Little Tramp" character, he strove to come off as intensely sympathetic. But Chaplin's forever-an-underdog persona and status as comedy god can obscure that he was, above all, a clown. His films, including The Great Dictator, were filled with not-very-sophisticated humor: slapstick, sight gags, and broad ethnic stereotypes. In other words, just the sort of humor that's made Baron Cohen famous.
It took courage to make The Great Dictator when Chaplin made it, both because it depicted Jewish characters in heroic roles and because it urged a war against the Axis powers at a time when many Americans were ambivalent about getting involved. The film is rightly considered a classic and was nominated for five Academy Awards. But it's also deeply flawed, as reviewers at the time saw. The movie's climax is an impassioned monologue in which Chaplin steps out of character and speaks for three full minutes directly into the camera about the need to fight for liberty. The speech is a heartfelt, eloquent, cinematic disaster, bringing the comic momentum of an otherwise wonderful film to a screeching halt. "It is fatal when Chaplin drops his comic persona, abruptly changes the tone of the film, and leaves us wondering how long he is going to talk (a question that should never arise during a comedy)," Roger Ebert wrote in a 2007 evaluation of the film. "The movie plays like a comedy followed by an editorial."
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The new Dictator succeeds with its climactic speech where the old one failed. Fully in character, Aladeen gives a well-reasoned, fabulously ironic argument against democracy in favor of fascism—one none-too-subtly implying that Western societies are often less free than we like to believe. It's the film's best moment, and it avoids Chaplin's worst mistake.
With his penchant for nonstop scatological humor, Baron Cohen isn't likely be nominated for many Oscars next year. Given his prank on Ryan Seacrest at this year's show, he probably won't even be invited to the ceremony. Chaplin, meanwhile, is rightly deified. But sacrilegious as it sounds, Baron Cohen's film is better than Chaplin's. Which movie is funnier is ultimately a matter of personal taste that depends on how much one enjoys having jokes about pubic hair and public urination mixed with their political satire. On the basis of how well each filmmaker executed his vision, though, Baron Cohen's version of The Dictator is the great one.
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