‘The Dictator’: All hail Aladeen!

May 15, 2012

Outrageous, offensive and alternately sophisticated and crude, “The Dictator” is also quite funny – as well as being Sacha Baron Cohen’s first comedy that is mostly scripted.

Did I say offensive? Put it this way: If you don’t have a sense of humor about race, religion, ethnicity, sexuality and gender, here’s a movie that will easily induce anger or worse.

If, on the other hand, you can find the risky humor in a throwaway visual gag in which an anti-Semitic despot plays a Wii game based on Palestinian terrorists killing Israelis at the 1972 Munich Olympics (complete with a feature that offers the shooter “Jew-dar” to find his targets), well, this is the movie for you.

I will admit that I gasped and then giggled at the audacity of what is a tossed-off sight gag. And I was laughing regularly throughout this film, which was directed by Larry Charles and written by Baron Cohen and three others. Is it uneven? Of course – so are all of his films. But his hit-to-miss ratio is as high as that of the Zucker brothers in their “Airplane” heyday.

No one is safe from Baron Cohen’s sting, starting with the rulers of Arab countries, admittedly a demographic that can stand having fun poked at them. But he’s just as rough on the people who show up to protest dictators’ appearances at the U.N. And vegans and liberals and the CIA. And Brooklyn hipsters. And American tourists. And Arab expatriates. And the media. And celebrities… and … and …

Well, as I said, Baron Cohen casts a wide net. He seems to have something wildly nasty to say about everyone – but he always seems to say it with a charming smile. He’s an equal-opportunity offender.

In the film, he plays Admiral General Aladeen, supreme ruler of the Middle Eastern kingdom of Wadiya. He’s ready to execute anyone who questions his authority or his knowledge of current events or even anyone who simply makes him a little uncomfortable. Sure, his people hate his brutally dictatorial ways; that’s why he has a double to take his place in public, the better to be assassinated in his stead (since attempted assassinations seem to be a part of his daily life).

And most of them, apparently, are being orchestrated by his uncle, Tamir (Ben Kingsley), who should have taken the throne when Aladeen’s father died. When Aladeen is summoned to speak to the United Nations about whether or not he has nuclear weapons, Tamir plots to secretly kill him and replace him with a dim-witted goatherd, who will be manipulated into doing Tamir’s bidding (including opening Wadiya’s rich oil reserves to international development).

But Aladeen escapes from his kidnapper and winds up homeless (and beardless), the object of compassion of a politically progressive young woman named Zoey (Anna Faris). She takes him in, giving him work in her extra-crunchy natural foods co-op in Brooklyn.

Old habits die hard, however, and Aladeen’s attitudes are deeply entrenched. Yet exposure to Zoey (and eventual attraction to her) ultimately changes Aladeen, even as he plots to infiltrate the Wadiyan stronghold in Manhattan and replace his replacement in time to foil Tamir’s plot to declare democracy in Wadiya.

The plotting here is more structured than the free-form approach in “Borat” and “Bruno,” both of which felt like they were scripted in the editing room. The story is simple, to be sure, a clothesline on which to hang a variety of comedy sketches. In one, for example, Baron Cohen and Jason Mantzoukas, as Aladeen’s only ally in America, take a helicopter ride over Manhattan to do surveillance on the hotel where the Aladeen imposter is being kept. Trying to seem like typical tourists, they instead scare the crap out of their fellow passengers, who think they’re planning the next 9/11.

Baron Cohen’s jokes about the co-op’s customers and employees are scabrous and deliciously observed, blending rudeness, visual gags, unexpected violence and other elements to create laughs. Similarly, his exchanges with Zoey are consistently funny because of Faris’ wide-eyed affect and Baron Cohen’s ability to say outrageous things without seeming to be making a joke.

In that respect, “The Dictator” is a deft satire – right up to its climax, in which Aladeen gives a speech about why he hates democracy and casually skewers American attitudes and actions of the past dozen years.

Baron Cohen admittedly is not for all tastes – but if you can swing with him, “The Dictator” is a vastly entertaining comedy.

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