Sacha Baron Cohen’s new movie, The Dictator is really two movies in one. Surprisingly, only one of them sorta sucks, and the other one is actually pretty funny. Baron Cohen has become synonymous with a certain sort of lowbrow, sophomoric humor, and there’s lots of that on display here. But he’s also smarter than he often gets credit for — or even admits to — and when the movie sets down the dick-and-fart jokes it swings from incisive to absurdist and back. And if the prospect of penile prosthetics will get more people in to see his social commentary — yes, you heard me — I guess I can put up with it.
Baron Cohen plays Admiral General Aladeen, the brutal dictator of the North African nation of Wadiya, located on the western shore of the Red Sea. Aladeen’s style — composed basically of equal parts Kim Jong-Il and Khaddafi — is summed up well in the movie’s first trailer, which seems to be its purpose. The movie itself mercifully dispenses with a protracted exploration of his life as dictator and moves to New York, where he must address the United Nations or risk air strikes over the Wadiyan nuclear program.
It’s here that Aladeen is abducted and replaced with a moronic body double (Baron Cohen again) at the orders of his right-hand man, Tamir (Ben Kingsley). The double announces a new constitution to be signed in five days, at which time Tamir will be able to sell off the Wadiyan oil rights to Gazprom, Exxon, BP, and the Chinese government.
Shorn of his signature beard, Aladeen falls in with Zoey (Anna Faris), the owner and manager of a feminist progressive cooperative grocery in Brooklyn. And, as luck would have it, he meets up with the former head of his nuclear program, Nadal (Jason Mantzoukas), who has not, in fact, been executed, but is instead living in Little Wadiya and working as a Mac Genius.
In exchange for a return to his position in Wadiya, Nadal decides to help Aladeen prevent the immanent collapse of their home country into democracy. But Aladeen inexplicably — and entirely predictably — develops feelings for Zoey. Hijinks, being what they are, ensue.
What The Dictator shows most clearly is why Borat and Brüno didn’t work: both of Baron Cohen’s previous efforts were at heart extended bits from his earlier Da Ali G Show. Bits which may work in small doses quickly grow tiresome when stretched out over the length of a feature film, especially when there’s not so much a coherent story as an excuse to bring a quirky character into contact with one straight-man after another.
But here we do have a story, and it’s a fairly decent one as screwball comedies go. The humor is smarter too; well, half the time it is, anyway. Baron Cohen and Mantzoukas banter well, and Faris can’t fail to be charming. And then there are all the cameo appearances and bit parts from a who’s who of comedy: Chris Elliott, Kathryn Hahn, Aasif Mandvi, Fred Melamed, John C. Reilly, Gary Shandling, J.B. Smoove, and plenty more.
When the movie is broad it’s really, really broad, and not at all to my tastes. But when we’re on the smart side the jokes come sometimes rapid-fire, sometimes subtly, and sometimes, somehow, both at once. The climactic, impassioned defense of dictatorship is truly a thing of beauty.
Since director Larry Charles is the same as the last two movies, the new success may be due to the replacement of old screenwriting Ali G-era collaborators Anthony Hines and Dan Mazer by Charles’ fellow Seinfeld alums Alec Berg, David Mandel, and Jeff Schaffer. Whatever the case, Baron Cohen seems to have finally hit upon his winning formula for the big screen, and I’m actually looking forward to another one..
Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: fail.