Sacha Baron Cohen‘s shotgun blasts of scabrous humor hit more than they miss in The Dictator, a self-consciously outrageous send-up 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 City. Rebounding from the disappointing Bruno, Baron 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 to catching people off-guard in real situations, and while it will prove too extreme for a portion of the mainstream public, Baron Cohen’s fans should generally welcome it to good box-office returns.
Dedicated “In loving memory of Kim Jong-il,” who occupied a place of comic honor in Team America: World Police, The Dictator can only have been made with two other late despots, Muammar Gaddafi and Saddam Hussein, especially in mind, given the extent of ego and quantity of medals brandished by Admiral General Aladeen (Baron Cohen) of Wadiya. Instantly recognizable due to his substantial black beard, Aladeen has been in power since the age of 7, sends even valued associates to the executioner for the merest perceived slight and has a wall of photographs of his celebrity sexual conquests, the latest of whom is Megan Fox, seen here making a hasty exit after a handsomely rewarded night between the sheets.
Like any notorious tyrant, Aladeen needs at least one double to throw enemies off and even to be assassinated from time to time, which is what gets him into trouble in the quick-firing script by Baron 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 the imposter off as the real thing for a speech at the United Nations. Tamir also will have the stand-in sign a new, democratic constitution that will make him and various business associates, notably a Chinese capitalist (Bobby Lee), very rich indeed.
Sidelined and shorn of his facial shrubbery, Aladeen is relegated to the hoi polloi for the first time in his life — and in the United States, no less. Much of the film’s most successful cultural humor stems from the almost unimaginable relationship between Aladeen, who takes up the name of Allison Burgers, 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 protest rally. Some truly riotous stuff stems from the interloper’s startling verbal and sometimes physical abuse of store customers and staff and Zoey herself, who sometimes gets upset at his all-purpose assault on every race, color and creed but more often doesn’t seem to know what the hell he’s saying.
Further fresh laughs stem from an unexpected reunion with his former chief rocket scientist and nuclear expert Nadal (Jason Mantzoukas), whom Aladeen thought he had executed but who is now among the refugees who cram the “Death to Aladeen” restaurant. 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 become increasingly alarmed overhearing these two suspicious-looking characters speaking some Middle Eastern language peppered with English phrases like 9/11 (they’re actually discussing a Porsche), Empire State Building and Statue of Liberty and making explosion noises. 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 successfully 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 democratic constitution. Larry Charles, who guided both Borat and Bruno for Baron Cohen, directs in an entirely unadorned, straightforward manner that means only to serve the augment the comic exploits of the star, though this time without the mockumentary aspects. The pair also continue to acknowledge when enough is enough; this one comes in at a tight 84 minutes, just two minutes longer than its predecessors.
Although The 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 up pro- and anti-American establishment sentiment for different reasons. Musically, the film is lively and diverse.
Mostly shot in New York, the film’s main overseas setting is the quasi-Moorish-styled Plaza de Espana in Sevilla, Spain, most famously used for the British officers’ club in Lawrence of Arabia.