The real-life dupes of his previous films are missing, but Sacha Baron Cohen's cultural humor remains intact and scores again.
Sacha Baron Cohen's shotgun blasts of scabrous humor hit more than they miss in The Dictator, a self-consciously outrageous sendup of a mad-dog Middle Eastern autocrat who has his eyes and heart opened -- but not too much -- during a crazy visit to New York. Rebounding from the disappointing Bruno, Cohen employs a comic range that ricochets between wicked political barbs and the lowest anatomical farce to often funny and occasionally hilarious effect. This is his most conventionally formatted narrative film, without the pretense of catching people off-guard in real situations, and while it will prove too extreme for a portion of the mainstream public, Cohen's fans should welcome it.
Dedicated "in loving memory of Kim Jong-il," The Dictator also must have been made with two other late despots, Muammar Gaddafi and Saddam Hussein, in mind, given the extent of ego and quantity of medals brandished by Admiral General Aladeen (Cohen) of Wadiya. Instantly recognizable because of his substantial black beard, Aladeen has been in power since age 7, sends even valued associates to the executioner and has a wall of photographs of his celebrity sexual conquests -- the latest of whom is Megan Fox, seen making a hasty exit after a handsomely rewarded night between the sheets.
Like any notorious tyrant, Aladeen needs a double to throw enemies off, which is what gets him into trouble in the quick-firing script by Cohen, Alec Berg, David Mandel and Jeff Schaffer. Aladeen's resentful chief henchman, Tamir (Ben Kingsley), finds a dimwitted shepherd who's a twin for his boss and, on a trip to New York, plans to pass him off as the real thing for a speech at the U.N. Tamir also will have the stand-in sign a new, democratic constitution that will make him and various business associates very rich.
Sidelined and shorn of his facial shrubbery, Aladeen is relegated to the hoi polloi for the first time in his life -- and in the U.S., no less. Much of the film's most successful cultural humor stems from the almost unimaginable relationship between Aladeen and vegan/feminist/all-natural/way-too-politically correct manager of the Free Earth Collective, Zoey (a brown-haired Anna Faris), whom he first encounters at an anti-Aladeen rally. Some truly riotous stuff stems from the interloper's startling verbal and sometimes physical abuse of store customers and staff and Zoey herself.
The extremes of the film's political black humor arrive in a diabolically clever scene in a tourist helicopter over Manhattan as an older American couple becomes increasingly alarmed overhearing these two suspicious-looking characters speaking some Middle Eastern language peppered with English phrases like 9/11 (they're discussing a Porsche) and the Empire State Building. The far shores of outrageous bodily comedy are reached in two scenes at the Collective, one in which Zoey has to teach her odd sort-of boyfriend how to masturbate and another featuring an emergency childbirth in which Aladeen, after seeing it through, blithely asks: "Where's the trash can? It's a girl."
The climax, naturally, involves the unavoidable encounter of the two Aladeens, real and phony, at the much-anticipated signing of the new constitution. Larry Charles, who guided Borat and Bruno for Cohen, directs in an unadorned, straightforward manner that means only to serve the comic exploits of the star, though this time without the mockumentary aspects. The pair also continues to acknowledge when enough is enough; this one comes in at a tight 84 minutes, just two minutes longer than its predecessors.
Although Dictator arrives at a happy ending, after a fashion, it's more nuanced and intellectually satisfying than one expects and is preceded by a pointed political speech that will rile both pro- and anti-American establishment sentiment for different reasons.
Opens: Wednesday, May 16 (Paramount)
Cast: Sacha Baron Cohen, Anna Faris, Ben Kingsley, Bobby Lee
Director: Larry Charles
Rated R, 84 minutes