Sacha Baron Cohen is back, and after skewering white-boy hip-hop poseurs (Ali G), unwittingly offensive “foreigners” (Borat) and ridiculously camp gay fashionistas (Bruno), his newest target is a timely one: pompous, pampered, preening Middle Eastern tyrants.
If anything, his new film “The Dictator” is too timely: The scriptwriters had to change an Osama Bin Laden subplot when the Navy SEALs bagged him, and Moammar Gadhafi — on whom Baron Cohen’s eccentric despot is closely modeled — was shot by his own people before the film opened.
“The Dictator” marks a new direction for Baron Cohen; up until now, his comic edge lay in taking his fictional characters and throwing them into real-life situations with people who weren’t in on the joke, whether it was Bruno coming on to congressman Ron Paul in a hotel room, or the inarticulate Ali G interviewing Noam Chomsky on linguistics.
The downside of his success is that he’s reached the point where he’s too famous to pull that off anymore, with the result that “The Dictator” is entirely scripted. Given that everyone said his first foray into cinema, 2002’s “Ali G Indahouse,” failed for exactly that reason, it’s natural to wonder whether “The Dictator” is any good.
Rest assured it is: From the moment the film opens with its dedication — “In loving memory of Kim Jong Il” — to its very last scene where he “saves” his country from democracy, “The Dictator” will have you laughing long and hard. In terms of sheer offensiveness, it ranks with anything Baron Cohen and his director Larry Charles (from “Bruno” and “Borat”) have done so far, not just in its scatological bits, but in its ability to offend pretty much everyone.
Adm. Gen. Aladeen (Baron Cohen) is the narcissistic supreme leader of oil-rich (and fictional) North African nation Wadiya whose quest for nuclear weapons puts him on a collision course with the United States. On the eve of a defiant speech before the U.N., his chief of security (Ben Kingsley) carries out a coup and replaces Aladeen with a look-alike, a mentally deficient goatherd. Aladeen escapes from his kidnapper before he can be liquidated, and finds himself beardless and unrecognized on the streets of New York. In the midst of an anti-Aladeen demonstration outside the U.N., he is rescued from an altercation with the cops by Zoey (Anna Faris), who mistakes him for a refugee seeking asylum.
The bulk of the film’s politically incorrect humor comes when Aladeen — used to a lifestyle of high-class escort services and obsequious yes-men — has to adapt to the reality of Zoey’s “vegan, feminist, nonprofit cooperative operating within an antiracist, antioppressive framework for people of all or no genders,” where he’s employed as a lowly shop-clerk. The cultural gap between Aladeen — who compares college-educated women to monkeys on roller-skates — and Zoey — who thinks nothing of getting in a cop’s face and screaming, “Where did you get your diversity and sensitivity training, the Stasi?” — makes the red-state/blue-state divide look small indeed.
The laughs are about as outrageous as you’d expect, with one over-the-top (or should I say, under-the-abdomen) shot seemingly lifted from Gaspar Noe’s “Enter The Void.” There are plenty of misses too, with the worst being a pointless diversion where Aladeen learns to spank the monkey, but Charles throws enough at the wall that plenty of it sticks. The film can gleefully deliver poop falling on a passerby from 40 stories up as well as it can a daft bit (based on something Saddam Hussein did, according to the filmmakers) where Aladeen replaces words in Wadiya’s language with his own name.
When Charlie Chaplin released “The Great Dictator” in 1940, he was praised for boldly attempting to deflate Adolf Hitler’s fearsome public image by revealing it for what it truly was: absurd. When comedian Baron Cohen attempts to do the same to a boatload of Middle Eastern megalomaniacs in “The Dictator,” the knee-jerk leftie critic response has been to accuse him of trading in anti-Muslim stereotypes.
Never mind that the word “Islam” is studiously avoided by the filmmakers; and never mind that Baron Cohen’s caricature is based more on secular Middle Eastern tyrants such as the late Hussein or Gadhafi. (And also ignore the fact that one of the film’s biggest laughs is directed at Dick Cheney.) The larger point is that the ridicule the film directs at its fictional tyrant is nothing compared with that served up by the populations of Yemen, Syria, Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and Bahrain at their own tyrants.
I suppose these people would call Chaplin’s movie, with its gibberish German ranting, “anti-Aryan.” Nonsense: Laughing at the oppressor is always a good thing, and comedy damn near always involves caricature. Baron Cohen is, if anything, a more equal-opportunity offender.