"The Dictator" Movie Review: More Sacha Baron Cohen Yuks Than Comedy Revolution

In The Dictator, Sacha Baron Cohen plays Admiral General Aladeen, the young, dumb leader of fictional North African nation Wadiya. Under Aladeen's rule, oil-producing, uranium-enriching Wadiya is a hostile threat to global peace and capitalism. And yet, Aladeen himself is so attracted to Western culture that he has commanded a parade of American celebrities to have sex with him (Megan Fox plays "herself"), taking Polaroids afterward as proof. "I really want someone to cuddle," Aladeen confesses, then gazes longingly at walls covered in photos of his celebrity conquests. A poor little rich boy with no limits and no one to love, he's sort of the Muslim extremist version of Arthur.

He might not even be a murderer: Unbeknown to the self-absorbed leader, everyone Aladeen sentences to death is smuggled to safety by his resistance-minded executioner. Soon, Aladeen's brother (Ben Kingsley) attempts to sell him out, hiring a goat-fetishizing look-alike (also played by Baron Cohen) to serve as Aladeen's double as they all travel to New York to defend Wadiya's nuclear program to the U.N. The plan is to have the real Aladeen killed, then coach the fake into using the U.N. speech to renounce Aladeen's regime and announce Wadiya's impending transformation into a democracy. The dictator escapes his scheduled assassination and ends up outside the U.N. in bum garb, leading the gathered protesters in a cry against the "illegitimate" leader addressing the assembly inside.

This draws the attention of Zoe (Anna Faris), a crunchy Brooklyn activist who mistakes Aladeen for a dissident and welcomes him into her refugee-staffed Williamsburg food co-op. While plotting to overthrow the impostor and take back Wadiya, Aladeen uses his disciplinary talents to reform Zoe's store and falls for her in the process. This subplot activates the film's most successful joke: Of course a despot who rails against democracy while accumulating gold-plated Hummers and watching Real Housewives would feel at home in a place where "resistance" to the American mainstream revolves around the rigid dictates of political correctness and the consumption of luxuries like coconut water. Faris gets most of the film's best bits: Zoe's memory of her time in a "feminist-mime workshop" is funnier than anything Baron Cohen does the whole movie.

Admiral General Aladeen loves a parade.
Melinda Sue Gordon
Admiral General Aladeen loves a parade.

Details

The Dictator, starring Sacha Baron Cohen, Ben Kingsley, and Anna Faris. Directed by Larry Charles. Written by Sacha Baron Cohen, Alec Berg, David Mandel, and Jeff Schaffer. 83 minutes. Rated R.

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One of Aladeen's accomplices realizes that the Supreme Leader has been transformed by his Brooklyn sojourn when he starts working Yiddish words into conversation, but he shouldn't be surprised, given that Aladeen's comic sensibility is thick with borscht. ("Twenty dollars a day for wi-fi?!?" he exclaims on checking into his hotel. "And they call me an international criminal!") Eventually, the staleness of one-liners starts to seem like the joke in and of itself.

As a comic stunt and a political statement, the film seems to exist to support its climax, in which the "real" Aladeen tries to sell America on the perks of a dictatorship but ends up illuminating America itself. As a punch line hammering home the film's core polemic — basically, that "freedom" and "tyranny" aren't black and white or mutually exclusive — it's pretty great. But it doesn't justify the filmlong setup that precedes it. It suggests what could have been had Baron Cohen played the material a little straight and given the movie's world stronger ties to our real world. Great satire, after all, is funny because it's true.

 
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