Following Borat and Brüno it was hard for anyone to imagine that the creator of the two films, Sacha Baron Cohen, could possibly come up with something even more outrageous and less politically correct than these two outings. However, when it was announced that his next project (also to be directed by Borat’s and Brüno’s Larry Cohen) would be a “loose adaptation” of Saddam Hussein’s only novel, Zabibah and the King (something that turned out to be a clever marketing gag) and would follow the quest of a Middle Eastern dictator to ensure that his country would never see the birth of democracy, it became quite clear that Cohen is reaching for outer limits of offensiveness with his newest project.
The movie follows General Aladeen, an amalgam of Muammar Gaddafi, Saddam Hussein, Kim Jong-Il and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a deluded, petty, narcissistic and volatile dictator of Wadiya, a Middle Eastern country rich on oil supplies. Left in charge of the country by his father at the age of seven, Aladeen lives the life of a wealthy dictator to the fullest. From virginal female bodyguards (hello Gaddafi) over spontaneous execution orders (via a “chop head” sign) to illegal developing of nuclear weapons in order to destroy an unnamed country starting with “Is…”. Aladeen is still lonely at times and thus has female (and apparently sometimes also male) celebrities flown in for him to sleep with him for money or gifts after which he takes a Polaroid with them and pins it to the wall. One day, however, the United States has had enough. A military strike is planned against Wadiya unless he goes to New York and explains himself from of the United Nations in person. Aladeen doesn’t hesitate to travel to the “birthplace of AIDS”, accompanied by his uncle and most trusted person Tamir. What he doesn’t know, however, is that Tamir has hatched a plan to dispose of Aladeen, replace him by an imbecile double and have the double sign a new constitution of Wadiya in front of the United Nations, thus turning Wadiya into a democracy and allowing Tamir to sell the country’s oil reserves to the highest bidders. Upon arrival in New York, Aladeen is kidnapped and can barely escape alive, losing his treasured beard in the process. For the first time in his life, Aladeen is on his own, without money or power. Luckily he learns Zoey, a naïve eco-activist and feminist who gives Aladeen a job at her organic fair trade grocery store. Zoey is everything Aladeen stands against and yet something about her fascinates him. However, his primary goal is to prevent the signing of the new constitution and reclaim his rightful position as the one and only dictator of his beloved Wadiya.
The movie opens with an “In Loving Memory” image of Kim Jong-Il and sets the tone for the picture. It’s clear that Sacha Baron Cohen’s goal here, like in his previous efforts, is to offend as much and as many as possible. Did he outdo himself this time and top the predecessors? I wouldn’t go this far, though it is definitely on the same level of offensiveness as his comedic faux-documentaries. One can of course argue about what is more offensive, but after seeing the movie one thing is clear – it will ruffle more than a few feathers. A sequence in which Aladeen plays the 1972 Munich Olympics assault on the Israeli team as a first-person shooter video game will certainly not go over well with many in the audience and some might call it bad taste – which it is, but Cohen is completely aware of that (other gaming options include car-bombing and the Tokyo subway gas attack) and takes no prisoners. China won’t be very keen on the movie either as the Chinese delegate is shown having some specific penchant as far as display of power is concerned – which leads to a hilarious blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo appearance by a major Hollywood star that shall not be spoiled here.
Comparing the film to Cohen’s previous efforts, it falls somewhere between Brüno and Borat. It is every bit as mean-spirited and offensive as Brüno, but whereas Brüno just consisted of a series of funny, but only loosely interconnected bits, The Dictator follows a very straight-forward plot which is more akin to Borat. The one thing that made Borat stand out is that beneath all the nastiness, the satire, the offensiveness and the hilarity, the movie still had a heart and the character of Borat still felt like a relatable human being (albeit in a very twisted way). The complete lack of this kind of humanity was what many critics lamented about Brüno and with The Dictator Sacha Baron Cohen goes a step back to Borat without ever toning down the offensiveness. The experiment mostly succeeds, though Borat Sagdiyev still remains his most likable character.
A lot has been made of The Dictator being Sacha Baron Cohen’s first leading role in a movie not based on one of the characters he has played many times in the past as well as being his first entirely “fictional” movie. This was much ado about nothing as the transition is very smooth. The humor is still exactly the same and those who have hated or have been offended by Borat and Brüno certainly won’t find anything to like here either. Those who can take some mean-spirited offensiveness and don’t care much about anything resembling political correctness will find themselves with one of the year’s funnier films. One of the good things that can be said about The Dictator is that while the trailers have shown some very funny bits, there is a lot left to be laughed at in theatres that hasn’t been spoiled yet. In the time when marketing gives away every single funny bit of a movie, it is a refreshing change. In fact, some of the scenes in the trailers don’t appear in the movie at all (like the Kardashians joke).
Once again Sacha Baron Cohen enthusiastically lives the part, even though it is slowly but gradually is getting old. The mannerisms and the speech are very reminiscent of a certain Kazakh reporter here. It still works very well, but I don’t think Cohen can get away with another character of this kind anytime soon. Same goes for the incredible amount of offensive jokes. Most of them work out very well and thanks to a very short running time of 80 minutes the movie never lags and there are no breaks in hilarity, but at some point there is no outdoing the bad taste and the offensiveness anymore, unless you do it just for the sake of being offensive. I could have done without some of the cheap gross-out gags (are a woman’s hairy armpits that funny?), but given the innumerable count of jokes it’s not a tragedy or a surprise that some just fall flat. With Baron Cohen being such a comedic force, all the characters around him inevitably suffer. Ben Kingsley just plays a modern day non-fantasy version of the character that he played in Prince of Persia and phones in his performance. Anna Faris, a normally gifted comedic actress, is just outshined and overshadowed by Cohen who is front and center of this film. Most of the funny scenes with her is just reliant on her “eco-freak feminist” looks and less on her comedic chops. I’ve got to admire the self-deprecating humor displayed by Megan Fox in her cameo, though.
The film’s resolution will certainly leave some of the viewers with mixed feelings. Despite the concise running time, the movie not only finds time for some romance, but also for delivering a straight-up, barely veiled commentary on America’s so-called democracy. The idea is great, but the delivery is just a bit too obvious and in your face compared to the smarter humor of Borat. However, the film’s very ending provides yet another nice twist that makes up for the blunt commentary preceding it. Sacha Baron Cohen might not have many movies like this left in him, but The Dictator is great entertainment, so enjoy it while it lasts.