If you never bought into Sacha Baron Cohen's style of humor before, "The Dictator" isn't a great place to start. Like Cohen's "Bruno," "The Dictator" takes a very funny starting point and is nearly drowned by Cohen's love of shock value and poop jokes, though there are still the occasional flashes of brilliance that make Cohen one of our best on-screen comedians. "The Dictator" is not exactly for the easily offended, but it is also so audacious with its political satire that Cohen can almost be forgiven the bits of humor better left for Adam Sandler or the Farrelly Brothers.
More than anything, Cohen has a unique talent for pressing uncomfortable topics, something that is at the heart of "The Dictator" from the opening credits. With a mock dedication to late North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il, "The Dictator" isn't shy about having fun with a character who should be deplorable at every turn for American audiences. In his fictional North African country of Wadiya, supreme leader Aladeen (Cohen) rules with an iron fist as he tries to bring his nation into the nuclear era. Instead of the stiff poses you normally get from dictators, Aladeen is more like a kid at play, with more oil money than he knows what to do with and a tendency to turn on even his closest advisors for any reason.
Meanwhile, the rest of the world wants Aladeen to embrace a new era, which means nuclear responsibility, human rights and equality for women, three things that Aladeen can't even say with a straight face. Though his position used to be secure, Aladeen is soon under attack from the entire world as pundits look at Wadiya's nuclear proliferation with suspicious eyes. Aladeen himself is very proud of his country's step into the nuclear age, though one trip to the nuclear facility leaves Aladeen with missile envy. With just one measly little rocket, one much smaller than he had imagined, Aladeen can't see what the big deal is.
Soon he's off to New York City to meet with the United Nations, backed by the guidance of Tamir (Ben Kingsley), a shadowy advisor who was formerly in line to be dictator. Though Aladeen has plans to flaunt his defiance to the U.N., instead he ends up the victim of an assassination plot gone wrong, leaving him wandering the streets of New York without a clue. After losing his beloved beard in the assassination attempt, Aladeen now looks like your average weirdo loping about the city streets, and he's lost without a palace of guards and privilege.
As Aladeen starts his journey to get back in front of the U.N., Tamir starts calling the shots and goes forward with plans to make Wadiya a democracy. As he secretly looks to set up his power even after the country turns democratic, Tamir naturally allies himself with the interests of China. "China is a democracy too!" they joke behind the scenes at the U.N., though it's pretty clear - in the movie - that China is actually run by one man and a group of loyal puppets. Don't worry, American democracy takes a few rounds as the punching bag too.
Meanwhile, Aladeen teams up with well-meaning human activist Zoey (Anna Faris), who looks past Aladeen's blatant misogyny and racism and helps him settle in. Mainly this is to give Aladeen an excuse to work at Zoey's little grocery boutique, and it doesn't take long for him to enact payback against all the crummy customers who think that he's just another defenseless grocery clerk. Aladeen's style of running the store may not be legal, but it doesn't take long for the dictator to whip everyone into shape and have the store operating at its highest level.
This all leads to an over-the-top finale that doesn't necessarily go how you might expect from a mainstream comedy, and it's nice to see Cohen at least go all the way - for better or for worse. Though Aladeen may come to a new understanding on certain things, don't expect him to get all soft and mushy. The way that he finally embraces the similarities of a dictatorship and democracy in a triumphant speech to the U.N. is smart enough to be in a much better movie.
Though directed by Larry Charles, who helmed both "Borat" and "Bruno," "The Dictator" is still Cohen's show as the writer, producer and star. In a way, "The Dictator" feels a lot like early Woody Allen flick "Bananas," a 1971 movie in which Allen came to the U.S. pretending to be a rebel leader in the image of Fidel Castro or Che Guevara. At that point in his career, Allen was making funny but limited satires, and it wasn't until "Annie Hall" and "Manhattan" a few years after "Bananas" that Allen finally brought it all together. In "Bruno" and again here with "The Dictator," we can see why Cohen thought the premise would be so funny, but we also get the sense that he's capable of making a much better movie.
by RTT Staff Writer
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