Offensive. Crass. Tasteless. Sacha Baron Cohen is the tyrant of guilty laughs — those awful moments that sneak out when a disappointed awe should — and his latest film, “The Dictator”, for once a scripted endeavor, reaffirms the witty and often intelligent performer’s reputation, even if much of the payoff is less satisfying than past attempts. Still, a half-mast Cohen, with a natural grace in front of the camera, outdoes many other flat comedies.
Cohen and director Larry Charles team up for the third time, taking the raunchy humor of “Borat” and “Brüno” into a more conventional feature film structure. In place of documentary-style footage, we get the story of the world’s last real dictator, complete with gold Hummers and a loose lip for executions. You know you’re in for something unique when the first image is an “in loving memory” tribute to the recently deceased supreme leader of North Korea, Kim Jong-il.
Admiral General Aladeen (Cohen), dictator of the small oil nation, Wadiya, finds himself in a precarious situation when a speech for the United Nations ends in a kidnapping and extended stay in one of the most diverse cities in the world –– a bad place to be for a racist, misogynist ruler who always gets what he wants. Aladeen, under the new name Alison Burger, moves about New York City unnoticed until he meets Zoey (Anna Farris), a vegetarian feminist “gone green” shop owner who employs world refugees. Coincidently, her shop acquires the catering contract for the U.N. summit, thus Aladeen befriends her to reclaim his lost (misplaced) political position. Alas, scheming just might turn into something else. Perhaps, romance or a renewed view on politics. Believe me when I say this gives away nothing. Just remember who’s the actor behind the protagonist; he cares far less about morality than brute comedy.
In several ways, “The Dictator” views like a “Harold and Kumar” flick cut with a splash of “Scary Movie” idiocy (which incidentally also stars Farris). It’s dumb fun, but there’s some form of social relevancy no matter how thin. But though the social commentary is surprisingly minimal, Cohen delivers a few telling monologues and one-liners that reveal many uncomfortable truths about global environments.
The humor never reaches the offensive heights of “Borat” or the raunch factory of “Brüno”, instead lingering somewhere between the two but never quite living up to past expectations. In truth, it’s rather subdued, considering the leading star and filmmaking team. That said, there’s plenty to cringe at from o-so-many jokes regarding Middle East stereotypes, and general crudity that anyone can get behind or avoid, depending on your film sensibilities. Despite several uneven moments, “The Dictator” contains a few charms, like the unexpected delight of the soundtrack: a slew of familiar songs with one minor difference (I won’t give it away).
This is Cohen’s show. In fact, co-star Farris — as much the queen to dumb humor as Cohen is the king to offensive humor — does nothing funny; Cohen reigns supreme. Along with the leading star (and even a supporting star as his own double), he’s also co-screenwriter and co-producer. Last year, he proved a certain level of acting versatility in “Hugo” while the “The Dictator” takes him back to his lowbrow roots, and frankly I’m glad to see him back in the old saddle. Now, if we could only get him to do an “Ali G” movie to conclude the three characters from his HBO show.
If you’re into raunchy laughs and can stomach offensive satire, then “The Dictator” has plenty of material to offer, but there are plenty of other films that do this better. You may chuckle, but the majority of the film evokes an occasional courtesy laugh.
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