REVIEW: Sacha Baron Cohen Says the Things Most of Us Are Afraid to Say in The Dictator
Sacha Baron Cohen and Larry Charles’ The Dictator is indefensible and hilarious, an unruly thing that invites you to laugh at things you feel you shouldn’t. I’ve heard people — even some who like the picture — referring to The Dictator as offensive, and one of the guys sitting behind me at the screening laughed at some jokes and remained awkwardly mute during others. After one of these pauses — the vibrations of his uneasiness were traveling right through my seat back — I heard him say to his pal, “I’m not sure how I feel about this.” But as the end credits rolled he announced joyously, “That was great!” as if he’d endured an enema cleansing that made him feel a whole lot better afterward. Cohen has many gifts as a performer, and with The Dictator he reveals yet another one: He knows how to flush stuff right out of you.
Cohen’s invented character du jour is a despot named General Admiral Haffaz Aladeen, ruler of the equally made-up North African state of Wadiya. Aladeen hates the West, hates Jews and regularly calls for the execution of anyone who undermines his authority, by, say, questioning his firm belief that nuclear missiles should be pointy and not rounded. His chief adviser is his Uncle Tamir (Ben Kingsley), who chafes under Aladeen’s authoritarian rule and seeks to undermine him. After Aladeen survives an assassination attempt, Tamir persuades him to go to New York to address the United Nations, which has been sticking its nose into his sordid doings. Once he gets to the city — he makes his grand entrance on the back of a decorated camel — he’s kidnapped, stripped of his protruding steel-wool beard and medal-and-scrambled-egg-encrusted uniform, and forced to live as an anonymous immigrant with a tenuous grasp of the English language. It’s at this point that he meets Zoey (Anna Faris), a peacenik mighty-mite who runs a whole-foods store and who, in her desire to be fair and generous to all peoples, attempts to understand his motivations as he spouts all sorts of racist and sexist invective. Meanwhile, Aladeen — who has adopted the name Alison Burgers, for reasons so ridiculous that they’re better left unexplained until you see the film — attempts to reclaim his stature with the help of scientist and Wadiyan exile Nadal (Jason Mantzoukas), who agrees to help him regain his mojo by bulking up in the nukes department.
Cohen’s targets here include people who fly planes into buildings for religious reasons, people who hate Jews, and women with hair under their arms. As they used to say on Sesame Street, one of these things is not like the others, but those of you who like to cultivate fragrant jungles in your armpits will just have to deal. The satire in The Dictator is sharp but not exquisitely pointed, and the movie is better for it: It’s clear enough where Cohen’s sympathies lie — his jokes have a kind of sick buoyancy, instead of hammering you with their politics. Cohen’s humor is political, though in the end it may really only be humanitarian. At home in Wadiya, amongst his riches, his servants and his high-cost prostitutes (one of whom is Megan Fox, gamely playing herself), Aladeen likes to play video games, including a Wii-style amusement called “Munich Olympics.” I groaned, along with much of the audience, when he hit the “play” button, but there’s anger in the joke as well as audacity. Cohen doesn’t suffer bullies gladly, which makes a character like Aladeen an irresistible canvas for him.
The Dictator is a written-and-rehearsed picture, unlike the extended prank Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, and it’s probably the better film. As he did on that picture (and the more wayward Brüno), Cohen again pairs with director Larry Charles, who’s acutely in tune with his rhythms. Charles — who has worked extensively in TV as a producer and/or writer on shows like Seinfeld, Entourage and Curb Your Enthusiasm, and who also directed the gloriously woolly 2003 Bob Dylan fever dream Masked and Anonymous — has by this point proved to be a great midwife for the ideas of oddball intellects. He gives some shape and heft even to Cohen’s silliest gags, like the one in which it’s explained that Aladeen amended the Wadiyan language so that “negative” and “positive” are the same word — this bit of silliness occasions a great little cameo for Aasif Mandvi as a doctor who’s trying to give a patient the result of his AIDS test.
Add to that the pleasure of watching Cohen in all his long-legged, language-mangling glory: The Dictator works both as satire and as comedy, and the two don’t always mingle so easily. Cohen has a way of slinging lines that’s as casual as a cook flipping meat patties in a burger joint. “The police here are such fascists!” he says, aghast at the behavior of New York City cops, but he’s really just setting us up for the kicker: “And not in the good way!” By the time Aladeen has been in in New York for a while, his sartorial choices have been unduly influenced by crunchy-granola Zoey, to the point where he thinks nothing of wearing Crocs in public. When Nadal uses this footwear choice as evidence of how far Aladeen has fallen, the has-been tyrant can only agree: “Crocs," he says dejectedly, "the universal symbol of men who have given up hope.”
Cohen may be playing an autocrat, but he doesn’t let his ego run roughshod over his fellow actors. Anna Faris gets less screentime than Cohen does, but she stands up to him admirably, maybe because she’s willing to go just as far as he is for a laugh, even a painful one. As Zoey, a no-makeup martinet with firm ideas about equality among all peoples, she captures perfectly the tyrannical smugness of the tiny but powerful nation of white people known as Park Slope, Brooklyn. The Dictator, for all its liberal leanings, doesn’t let anyone off the hook, not even well-intentioned liberals. Cohen comes right out and says things that most of us, in polite conversation, wouldn’t dare. He knows it's the impolite conversation that really gets things moving.