Even when sticking to a script, Sacha Baron Cohen leaves no target untouched: His new movie opens with a dedication to the memory of Kim Jong Il and closes with an anti-Semitic gag. If Groucho Marx were alive today, he would probably make movies like “The Dictator,” British comedian Baron Cohen’s latest subversive romp and searing showcase of crass global stereotypes. Transitioning back into a scripted dynamic after his quasi-documentary performance excursions with “Bruno” and “Borat,” Baron Cohen loses none of his edge, combining slapstick inspiration and social commentary into a hilariously provocative blend.
The eponymous target is, in fact, a misnomer: While the actor plays the ruthless and eccentric tyrant of the fictional Middle Eastern country Wadiya, as always he remains an equal opportunity offender, challenging audiences not to laugh at mean-spirited gags. His pies-in-the-face have bite.
Baron Cohen initially became popular through “Da Ali G Show” less because of his cartoon alter egos than for the way he used them to mess with real people on camera, a feat that continued in feature-length format with “Borat” and “Bruno” to varying degrees of success. Admiral General Aladeen, however, exists in a fully controlled universe of lunacy.
In “Borat” and “Bruno,” Baron Cohen used his horrific caricatures to bring out the veiled xenophobia of those around him, resulting in a kind of free-form, vignette-based comedy with a flimsy, de facto narrative backbone. With “The Dictator,” Baron Cohen and his fellow screenwriters call all the shots, using the framework of a polished studio movie to unleash a horde of missives against dictatorial excess — and eventually lumping U.S. capitalism into the same overarching critique. The new movie has less outrageous shock value but greater ideological clarity. If the earlier films were empirical, quasi-journalistic takedowns, “The Dictator” is a full-on op-ed.
The movie begins with a clever mixture of authentic news footage and fictionalized material showing Aladeen’s posh life in Wadiya, where the hedonistic ruler forces the entire nation to bend to his will and keeps the civilized world on edge with his blatant antagonism. The first act runs through a series of politically incorrect jabs at dictatorships. Equal parts Muammar Gaddafi and Billy Madison, Aladeen casually orders the execution of anyone (literally) in his way, sleeps with movie stars after dark and eagerly oversees the development of nuclear weaponry (he stifles a laugh when publicly claiming the bomb will only serve to keep the peace).
Aladeen’s self-made paradise suddenly crumbles when he heads to New York in an attempt to tell off the U.N. and instead finds himself the target of an assassination attempt. Violently stripped of his trademark beard and escaping his torturer in the nick of time, Aladeen hits the streets in an unrecognizable state only to discover his former right-hand man (Ben Kingsley, competent if unmemorable) has sold him out. In the supreme ruler’s place, a deeply dumb body double has been selected to tell the UN that Wadiya will become a democracy in order to satisfy other countries’ oil interests.
Stuck outside the UN gates, Aladeen falls into the care of Zoey (Anna Faris), a short-haired hippie who mistakes Aladeen for a Wadiyan dissident and brings him back to her headquarters in Brooklyn, where she runs an organic food co-op. Once there, Aladeen quietly schemes to take back his throne while growing oddly comfortable with his new surroundings. The discovery of his former chief scientist, living undercover in nearby immigrant community Little Wadiya, provides Aladeen with the tools to plan his comeback. But will his views evolve?
In short, yes, but the real answer is not really. Once a dictator, always a dictator. However, in its journey to this conclusion, the movie contains actual plot details, not simply an endless barrage of “gotcha!” moments, which gives the movie a more cogent through-line for its humor than the documentary style of Baron Cohen’s earlier features. Just as Aladeen rules over his homeland, Baron Cohen controls everyone and everything we see.
Ironically, a script frees him up: Learning to masturbate rather than order up a blow job, taking a food commissioner hostage to ensure the co-op receives top marks, delivering a child and then offering, because of its female gender, to toss the infant in the trash — these are the kind of the absurd bits that could never have existed in his previous efforts without taking the conceit too far.
That’s right: Baron Cohen’s films, no matter their twisted, rampantly offensive contents, adhere to specific moral boundaries because they use their caustic silliness in service of a demagogic agenda. The man harbors serious contempt for his targets. Baron Cohen rarely does interviews, but “The Dictator” builds on a dialogue instigated by his earlier efforts. “Bruno” unearthed ugly sentiments embedded in the American psyche; having proven they exist, now Baron Cohen runs wild with a dark fantasy. “The Dictator” mocks our idea of a dictatorship more than actual dictatorships.
The movie maintains its topical edge all the way through the final monologue, which includes a plug for Occupy Wall Street and a missive against virtually every facet of modern American aristocracy. But it’s too funny to play like a blatant insult. Charles’ unassuming direction yields the look of a brightly lit action-comedy with a side dish of unlikely romance. Whenever “The Dictator” gets away from its dogma, it automatically becomes a lesser movie, and yet the overall inspiration driving the screenplay keeps it thoroughly amusing even when the story drags. The budding attraction between Zoey and Aladeen is generally a trite, predictable affair, but the very idea of the dictator falling in love opens the door for a plethora of one-liner delights (“When the thought of a decapitated head upsets you, that’s love”).
Aladeen isn’t an iconic creation like Ali G or Borat, but Baron Cohen does manage to make him oddly relatable, and the actor buries himself in the role. (An underutilized Faris plays the clueless activist well enough, but nobody can compete with the leading man.) He’s one of the best comedians working today because he never slows down to get real; the only certainty with Aladeen is that his next move will be a funny one. No taboo escapes unscathed as the jokes merge with the message.
The plucky nature of Baron Cohen’s protagonists harken back to Chaplin — and the easiest point of comparison is “The Great Dictator,” right down to the crude Western imitation of foreign language that forms Wadiya’s native tongue — but the creators of Wadiya owe a tremendous debt to “Duck Soup” and its own fictionalized dictatorship, Freedonia. Like Marx, Baron Cohen gets away with saying a lot more than most popular entertainers because he buries his satire in a disarming giddiness. For everything startling about Baron Cohen’s shtick, the source of satisfaction in his work is decisively old school.
Criticwire grade: B+
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Paramount releases “The Dictator” nationwide on Wednesday. It seems unlikely to compete with “The Avengers,” but solid reviews and an existing fan base for Baron Cohen’s work guarantee the movie should perform respectably without generating outstanding returns.