It’s more than 10 years after 9/11. Is America ready for a movie that makes the destruction of the Empire State Building by terrorists the punch line for a joke? Are we ready for a picture that mines laughs as it hints that a similar fate is in store for the Statue of Liberty?
Ready or not, here comes “The Dictator.”
Terrorism and torture, anti-Semitism and pedophilia and armpit hair. They’re all grist for the comic mill in Sacha Baron Cohen’s latest assault on moviegoers’ funny bones. Nothing, it seems, is off limits. And you know what? We expect nothing less from the man behind “Borat” and “Bruno.”
Baron Cohen is absolutely fearless when it comes to selecting subjects for satirical spearings. The big question, though, is any of this funny? The answer: Yes. Most of the way, the word for the day is hilarity.
Is it funny to see a Middle American-looking couple freaking out as two Middle Eastern-looking guys jabber away in a foreign language in which only the words “Statue of Liberty” and “boom!” emerge clearly? Indeed. Is a despot fussing that a nuclear warhead is round at the tip when he wanted it to be pointy funny? For sure. Is Sir Ben Kingsley instructing the tyrant’s female bodyguards, “girls, show him your bosoms,” amusing? Sort of. Mostly because it’s super-serious Sir Ben saying such a silly thing.
Unlike “Borat” and “Bruno,” in which over-the-top Baron Cohen turned real-life people into unwitting comic foils in his ambush-style pranks, “The Dictator” is a piece of scripted fiction. (Baron Cohen shares screenplay credit with three other writers; Larry Charles, who also directed “Borat” and “Bruno,” is behind the camera once again.) In it, Baron Cohen stars as Admiral General Aladeen of the fictional oil-rich North African nation of Wadiya. He’s a bemedaled, megalomaniacal mash-up of Saddam Hussein and Moammar Gadhafi, with a little bit of Kim Jong-il and his nuclear ambitions thrown in for spice.
He’s a gleeful tyrant, though rather dim. (His image of atomic bomb booms are inspired by Daffy Duck wabbit season cartoons.) Traveling to New York to address the United Nations in hopes of heading off NATO airstrikes, he loses his signature megabeard and most of his clothes in a botched abduction attempt. While his scheming uncle (Kingsley) employs a nitwit Aladeen body double in an attempt to seize power, the dictator finds himself penniless and unrecognized on the streets of the Big Apple. Shades of “The Prince and the Pauper.”
He’s befriended by a chirpy feminist health-store owner (Edmonds-raised Anna Faris, winsome and winning in the role), which opens the door for endless digs at feminism and gender stereotypes.
The movie is un-PC to the max, but Baron Cohen gets away with it, thanks to a sense of cheery cleverness that informs even his crudest jokes. He uses the shock of the unexpected to satirize post 9/11 paranoia and rigid ideological thinking in ways that jolt us into seeing the absurdity of attitudes that may be a form of mental or emotional imprisonment.
The movie is sweeter and its ending is far more conventional than either “Borat” or “Bruno.” Some of the cruder scenes go on too long, but mostly the funny bits come fast and furious. Submitting to this “Dictator” is very easy to do. ‘The Dictator’
* * *
Cast: Sacha Baron Cohen, Anna Faris, Ben Kingsley, and Jason Mantzoukas
Director: Larry Charles
Running time: 1:23
Rated: R; language, sexual situations, nudity, scatology.