Sacha Baron Cohen, portrays Admiral General Aladeen in a scene from "The Dictator." / Melinda Sue Gordon/Paramount Pictures
Two and a half stars (out of four)
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Two and a half stars (out of four)
There’s no end to what some tyrants will do to keep democracy at bay.
It can range from the inane, such as keeping 25 buxom virgins as a personal security force, to the brutal -- daily decapitations of anyone who even slightly disagrees.
After laughing at crudely funny scenes in “The Dictator,” there’s a cringing sensation of guilt. But that’s surely the intent of provocateur Sacha Baron Cohen, creator of such gleefully offensive characters as Borat and Bruno.
“The Dictator” is more scripted, but no less outlandish Cohen. The scripting helps: The film has a better developed plot than “Bruno” (2009) and a more defined structure than “Borat” (2006). And while tastelessness is rampant and the humor uneven, “The Dictator” also has its moments of slyly clever satire.
Cohen plays Adm. Gen. Aladeen, the “supreme leader” of Wadiya, a fictitious oil-rich North African nation. He’s racist, misogynist and hellbent on developing pointy nuclear weapons. He’s a particularly petty ber-dictator, changing the national language so that his name, Aladeen, connotes a variety of meanings. The denizens are not only oppressed, but also living in linguistic confusion.
Aladeen is obviously a play on the name Aladdin, and there’s a scene in which he rides into New York City on a camel surrounded by an elaborate retinue, la Disney’s “Aladdin.” Most of the action takes place in Manhattan as Aladeen struggles to regain his dictatorship even as his duplicitous adviser Tamir (Ben Kingsley) has found a knuckleheaded Aladeen double to sign a U.N. agreement turning Wadiya into a democracy.
Aladeen joins forces with Nadal (Jason Mantzoukas), a former Wadiyan bomb builder, to restore the dictator to his ruling place. Their plan entails Aladeen working for the sweetly oblivious vegan entrepreneur Zooey (Anna Faris), who is catering an event in the U.N. building.
Despite initially insulting her with a bevy of tasteless remarks, Aladeen falls for Zooey. A nasty/loopy fish-out-of-water tale turns into a rom-com with a mean streak, then goes back to politically inspired wicked laughs. Who else but Cohen could mine humor from human rights abuses and 9/11?
Aladeen sees himself as a “great dictator” in the tradition of Kim Jong Il (to whom the movie is lovingly dedicated), Moammar Gaddafi and Saddam Hussein. But lately, he says, he has been playing bridge with Rick Santorum: “I like him despite his liberal views.”
Cohen’s wry observations of contemporary politics have a surprisingly sharp bite, standing out in the half-baked overall premise.
When he addresses a gathering at a climactic moment (reminiscent of Charlie Chaplin’s third-act speech in the 1940 classic “The Great Dictator”), his political commentary is more pointed than the nuclear warheads he favored:
“Imagine a country where 1 percent of the people controlled most of the wealth” and leaders wage war against the wrong country for trumped-up reasons, he tells the crowd. “I know that this must be hard for you Americans to understand.”
Cohen is the bawdiest of political satirists with his in-your-face comic style. While some jokes in “The Dictator” fall flat and others merely serve to shock, a choice few definitely hit the mark.
There's no end to what some tyrants will do to keep democracy at bay. It can range from the inane, such as keeping 25 buxom virgins as a personal security force, to the brutal -- daily
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