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Late in The Dictator, Sacha Baron Cohen reins in the movie's scattershot, largely silly humor and aims it squarely at America-- at our chaotic form of democracy, at our people more interested in trivial reality stars than actual news, and especially at our media, whom he accuses of rolling over and letting our government get away with anything while we follow those trivial reality stars our readers actually care about. It's a pretty impressive critique, especially following a gag in which his dictator character poops on a woman who's just been mugged, and it ends The Dictator on a nobler, more interesting note than the otherwise silly humor might suggest.
The scene at the real-life press conference for The Dictator, held last week, felt bizarrely similar, right down to the setting in the Waldorf-Astoria hotel in Midtown (it subbed in for the fictional Lancaster Hotel in the film). There was Baron Cohen in character as Admiral General Aladeen, there were the sexy female guards flanking him, there were the scores of passionate supporters holding up signs supporting the General and cheering whenever he told them to. But while the press conference at the end of The Dictator involves a key surprise-- it's the moment when General Aladeen overthrows the brother (Ben Kingsley) trying to usurp him and retakes his power-- the real-life press conference contained absolutely none.
That's because journalists were asked to submit their questions ahead of time, and those who were approved to ask them were brought up to the microphone in turn, more like kids participating one by one in a school play than reporters getting real information. It was all because Baron Cohen was in character, of course, and needed a heads up to come up with retorts on par with what we saw in the film. But it also felt like a bizarre 180 from the comedic persona he established in his first two films. As Bruno and Borat, Baron Cohen went face to face with all kinds of real people and kept up his character, creating some of the funniest and most uncomfortable scenes in modern comedy. As General Aladeen, in the process of promoting his first fully-scripted film, Baron Cohen has abandoned the improv so much that this press opportunity-- the only one he offered to the vast majority of press-- was fully scripted ahead of time.
Like most comedians, Baron Cohen couldn't resist some opportunities for improv, and bantered with each question-asker before they got to their actual point (most questions were basically tees from which Baron Cohen could swing his jokes, like "How do you respond to accusations that you are the world's most fair and glorious leader?" and "Which Presidential candidate would you endorse?") And at times the press conference was actually funnier than the movie itself, ditching the wisp-thin plot and just rattling off jokes of varying offensiveness-- my favorite might be "Democracy is the worst. Everyone's vote counts no matter how black or crippled or female you are." Just like in the movie, it was the political jokes that worked better-- the Dictator endorsing Rick Santorum for President, or "accidentally" revealing the death of Hugo Chavez-- than the sex jokes aimed at celebrities, which effectively boiled down to "Here are the famous people I've had sex with by force."
Baron Cohen dominated the room with a sense of power and potential terror that's probably not all that different from a real life dictator-- you never knew when he might call you out, or in the case of one Israeli reporter, demand to see your penis to know if you were Jewish. That's a power that a lot of comedians have, but Baron Cohen has earned it by being particularly fearless, whether landing on Eminem's face at the MTV Movie Awards or dumping Kim Jong-Il's ashes all over Ryan Seacrest at the Oscars. But, as you might remember, both of those incidents were staged, or at least in the case of Seacrest, widely suspected to be. Sacha Baron Cohen gets up in front of people and does something surprising, only for us to learn later that it was planned down to a T. The only difference with this press conference is that everybody knew it was planned already, and no matter how many genuine laughs emerged, it was hard not to feel like we were going through the motions in the name of a publicity stunt where we were being used as set dressing.
At a lot of well-funded press events, they'll offer you a swag bag on your way out with all kinds of stuff-- T-shirts, cookies, backpacks, God knows what. At the end of The Dictator's press conference, Baron Cohen once again turned the tables on us: "We have rolexes here for you, you may enjoy the prostitutes we brought here for you, or the boys if you are from Canada. As long as you write good reviews all your families will be released." That joke, pulling back the curtain on the extravagance of a press conference and the queasy practice of getting gifts for a movie you're reviewing, was the closest the event came to that big speech at the end of The Dictator, and the first suggestion that Paramount was taking more than a few pages from General Aladeen's media-controlling book in organizing the event. But it was after we had all just participated in a press event that was written before we even got there. Kind of like that moment in The Dictator, it was an impressive joke that came too late to save anything.
Below you can watch video from the press conference to see how it played out in person. The Dictator, which you can read more about in my review, opens in theaters on Wednesday.