With Sacha Baron Cohen, Anna Faris, Ben Kingsley, Adeel Akhtar, John C. Reilly. Written by Sacha Baron Cohen, Alec Berg, David Mandel, Jeff Schaffer. Directed by Larry Charles. Rated R for strong crude and sexual content, brief male nudity, language and some violent images. 83 minutes.
Like many recent comedies, THE DICTATOR is not a prime example of the well-made film. Instead, it’s a collection of hit-or-miss gags, ranging from the clever to the crude. What’s perhaps funniest is that the same folks who praised trash like “The Hangover” and “Bridesmaids” will fault “The Dictator” for its rough edges. What’s the difference? Instead of appealing to overgrown adolescents, this is a movie that assumes you have at least a passing familiarity with current events.
Sacha Baron Cohen stars as Admiral General Aladeen of the mythical North African country of Wadiya. He’s a brutal dictator sitting on a lot of oil wealth, but has not invited the industrialized nations in to exploit his resources. Thus his Uncle Tamir (Ben Kingsley) is preparing a coup, with a double taking the place of Aladeen. The plot involves Aladeen coming to New York to address the UN but being kidnapped by his head of security (John C. Reilly) so that the uncle’s plot may go into place.
Aladeen escapes but has no way to prove his identity – his signature beard has been cut off – and so he ends up at a health food supermarket run by Zoey (Anna Faris), a left-wing feminist who has no idea that Aladeen is someone other than a refugee named Alison Burgers. When Zoey gets the contract to provide the exotic food for the Wadiya event where a new “democratic” constitution will be unveiled (secretly allowing China and big oil to take over the country) Aladeen sees the way to regain control.
Much of the humor is low, from Zoey teaching Aladeen how to masturbate, to his double – a goat herder – being at a loss what to do with the nubile women provided for his pleasure. However, there is also a political sensibility here that provides some big laughs, from the dedication of the film to the memory of fellow dictator Kim Jong-Il, to a speech about how all the great contemporary dictators (like Saddam Hussein, Muammar Khadafy and Dick Cheney) are no longer in power. It’s the sort of movie where if you don’t like a joke you should wait a minute because another one will show up shortly to try to do the job.
Cohen, who co-wrote the script, has his best role since “Borat” in creating a dictator who hates Israel but decides he likes Yiddish because the words sound like what they mean. Cohen, who is Jewish, has a lot of fun skewering the anti-Zionism of the Arab world. A brunette Anna Faris, almost unrecognizable to those who have seen her in movies like “The House Bunny,” demonstrates that she is one of the funniest actresses working today. Like Cohen, she gets her laughs playing her cartoonish character absolutely straight.
This is a movie that may make you laugh or may make you squirm. A scene where Aladeen is talking about his Porsche but seems – in his native language – to be planning a new 9/11 may strike some in bad taste, yet it neatly skewers the paranoia of contemporary America. Likewise his speech about how America would be better off as a dictatorship – in which he describes a situation reflecting how we actually live – may cut a bit close to the bone. It is the intelligence behind the slapstick and broad comedy that may ultimately sink the film with viewers.
Nonetheless, for all its flaws “The Dictator” is a very funny movie. It’s precisely the comic commentary that is a perfect fit for our times.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books, the most recent being Jar Jar Binks Must Die… And Other Observations About Science Fiction Movies. He teaches film at Suffolk University and lives in Somerville.