For most of its quick and extremely dirty running time, the new Sacha Baron Cohen offender The Dictator wages war with itself, crude nonsense up against crude nonsense that’s really funny. Then comes the golden ticket, the speech of speeches, the scene in which the fictional North African dictator General Admiral Haffaz Aladeen addresses a gathering in New York City, recanting his barbarous ways with a heartfelt confessional.
You Americans don’t know how good you have it here, he states. Where he comes from, he says, the top 1 percent controls most of the wealth. Leaders can’t wait to wage war on the wrong country. And on and on he goes. The joke’s both predictable and familiar, yet it kills.
At the Dictator screening, the scene started out one way—scoring easy points with its target audience of liberals—but by the end, with Cohen finessing the loutish Supreme Leader’s spiel just so, the applause in the theater sounded positively bipartisan.
This was the old Borat stuff! And I wish director Larry Charles’ third outing with Cohen had more of it. It’s maddeningly uneven, though a step up from the wearying Bruno. Since Borat, something has happened to Charles’ comic technique: The way he films simple dialogue exchanges has grown weirdly artless and often mistimed (the editing is mighty hacky), halfway to Adam Sandler territory for broadness. I stuck with it, though, because Cohen at his best is both brazen and sly. As is The Dictator.
This one’s plottier than Borat or Bruno, for better or worse. When one of Aladeen’s doubles is assassinated, the leader’s longtime adviser (Ben Kingsley, looking a little uncomfortable) hatches a scheme involving a new double (also played by Cohen), a visit to the dreaded America and an unlikely romance with a vegan/feminist/Rush Limbaugh nightmare, played by Anna Faris. She’s game and a strong sparring partner for Cohen’s unending misogynist wisecracks.
Like Faris, Jason Mantzoukas lends valuable support in the role of Aladeen’s former nuclear physicist presumed assassinated (by Aladeen). He turns up as one of countless refugees from Aladeen’s country, Wadiya, now living in the Manhattan subsection known as Little Wadiya.
The better gags in The Dictator move fast and get on with it, as when we hear a news announcer intone, “He did not know his mother, who died in childbirth,” while we see two or three seconds of footage of an armed guard smothering Aladeen’s mother with a pillow. (Harsh, but amusing.) In contrast, when Aladeen’s clueless goat-herder double-swigs urine out of a pitcher and pours it, inadvertently, on Israeli council members … harsh but un-amusing. It’s not filmed correctly. Re-watch Borat sometime to see how fearless satirists get away with murder. This movie’s more conventional. But it’s worth catching for Cohen’s brief, shining Camelot moment at the podium.
The Dictator (R) ★★★☆☆