The coupling of director Larry Charles and comedic actor Sacha Baron Cohen emerges yet again with The Dictator, a fairly plucky and entertaining film. This is Cohen’s fourth film as a leading actor and easily his most orthodox. It is forthright comedy; there is no hidden camera humour or “reality” material.
Like Cohen’s other movies, The Dictator knows when to quit. It is under 90 minutes in length (no word on its girth) and it doesn’t overstay its welcome, benefiting from keen editorial decisions. Not every joke works, but when some of the more shocking gags land they land in a big way. Nothing is sacred and Charles’ picture habitually crosses the line before moving it and crossing it again and again and again.
Cohen stars as the ham-fisted Admiral General Shabazz Aladeen. He is the dictator of the North African Republic of Wadiya, a fictional country that Wikipedia tells me is represented by Eritrea on the map. Wise choice. Aladeen nails down all the dictator stereotypes, even the beard. He is working on developing nuclear weapons. He doesn’t want to sell his country’s oil to foreign buyers, however, and has subsequently brought about some friction with his uncle Tamir (Ben Kingsley).
Tamir concocts a plot or two to take out Aladeen and supplant him with a double. When the dictator heads to New York City to speak at the United Nations, Tamir arranges for a hitman (John C. Reilly) but the plan falls through and Aladeen is beardless and alone. He comes across Zoey (Anna Faris), an activist operating a co-op. With her “help,” Aladeen hopes to thwart his uncle’s plans.
The Dictator is overflowing with well-placed celebrity cameos, including a “performance” by Megan Fox and a later one by Edward Norton. Other comedic actors like Bobby Lee, Fred Armisen and the always excellent J. B. Smoove play their parts with gusto. All the performers are dedicated to the outright madness of the picture, lending it an anarchic feel that has drawn comparisons to the movies of the Marx Brothers.
The satire is well-used, too. Cohen wisely draws it together at the end with a Chaplinesque speech about the comfort of dictatorship and all the things a country would do with one, like wiretapping and making sure all of the money goes to the top one percent. The scene cuts like a knife and Cohen pulls no punches, taking the edge off what could’ve been a saccharine finale with more jokes about abortion.
The Dictator uses offensive humour well and the jokes generally reside at the scandalous end of the scale. Nothing is saved the wrath of Cohen and Charles, with other Seinfeld talent like Alec Berg and David Mandel also contributing. Their carpet-bombing approach to every political, sexual and civil issue under the hot Wadiya sun is riotous when it works, but some jokes fall flat.
Overall, though, most of The Dictator is on target. Cohen doesn’t just skewer the regressive landscape of dictatorships and the brutality of the world’s playing card leaders, he also sticks a blade in the sacrosanct substance of jingoism and America’s “moral superiority.” His strokes are starkly but shrewdly drawn in the sand – and that makes this an unflinching and rousing brand of comedy indeed.