Normalcy is anathema to Sacha Baron Cohen’s style of comedy. The laughs in Borat (2006) and Brüno (2009), movies in which Baron Cohen assumed an outrageous persona and simply existed in the presence of actual people, come from the audaciousness of it. He’s a dangerous comedian, one who makes his points by pushing real people into uncomfortable places. He’s a gifted performer on his toes. It’s for these reasons that he finds himself banned from the Oscars, for example, because you never know what he might do. In a movie like The Dictator, which is completely scripted and the closest Baron Cohen has come to a traditional comedy, some of that danger is removed, and with it go the laughs.
Baron Cohen plays Admiral General Hafez Aladeen, the childish leader of the fictional Republic of Wadiya in North Africa. Aladeen has been the country’s supreme leader since he was eight and has spent the subsequent twenty-five years oppressing his people, bedding whomever he can buy, including some of America’s most beautiful celebrities, establishing and then dominating his own Olympic Games, and creating a nuclear weapons facility. On this last score he is very particular, complaining that the missiles his people have been building have rounded tips, not scary pointed ones like the ones he sees when doing his military research, which consists of watching Looney Tunes.
The United Nations decides that it will use force against Wadiya unless Aladeen speaks in front of the General Council regarding the nuclear weapons. Aladeen relents and with his grand vizier Tamir (Ben Kingsley) and a body double (also played by Baron Cohen) in tow, he makes the trip to the home of the devil: New York City. While there he is betrayed by Tamir, who wishes to sell Wadiya’s oil for his personal gain, and Aladeen is taken by American agents and replaced by the body double who, acting as Tamir’s puppet, will announce that Wadiya is to become a democracy and will start selling its oil. Aladeen escapes and finds that he now just another person, a regular schmo; he doesn’t even have a beard anymore. Worse, his beloved Wadiya, a place where “the people love being oppressed” is about to become a democracy. He gets a job at an ultra-liberal organic grocery in order to stop the signing of the Wadiyan democratic constitution because the grocery delivers food to the hotel where the signing will take place. In the meantime he falls for his boss, Zoey (Anna Faris), and perhaps even for America. “When the thought of someone’s decapitated head upsets you, that means love,” The Dictator tells us, which ranks somewhere below, “Well, nobody’s perfect” and somewhere above, “Love means never having to say you’re sorry” on the scale of movie truths about romance.
If the premise of The Dictator feels fairly thin when stretched over the length of the running time (and mercifully, the credits roll well before the eighty-minute mark), the script, written by Baron Cohen, Alec Berg, David Mandel, and Jeff Schaffer, is able to get a number of big laughs. I particularly enjoyed the idea of Aladeen changing some thirty or so words of Wadiyan to “aladeen,” even if they have opposing meanings. “Would you like to hear the aladeen news or the aladeen news?” a doctor asks a patient. “The aladeen news.” “You are HIV aladeen.” There is also a moment when Aladeen is going to be tortured by an American agent (played by John C. Reilly), and Aladeen unmercifully ridicules him for using antiquated torture devices. There is also a deliriously surreal moment involving a montage of a young Forrest Gump and a dunking Blake Griffin tied, most unusually, to Aladeen’s discovery of a new action.
Director Larry Charles has a lot of fun with sight gags, mostly exploiting the lengths of Aladeen’s high opinion of himself. Besides countless life-size paintings we are given two topiary monuments to the supreme leader. On the soundtrack there are a number of American songs in the movie sung in what sounds like Arabic. We get “The Next Episode,” “Everybody Hurts,” and “9 to 5.” I often complain that the use of “Let’s Get it On” in advance of love scenes is clichéd, but I must admit I’ve never seen it used in Arabic.
But the rest of the action is mainly routine, a word that should be lethal for Baron Cohen. In The Dictator, Baron Cohen is his most explicit in what he’s getting at; he makes a speech near the end that suggests that all the world is a dictatorship, but that point is without teeth. The speech itself is bitingly satiric, sort of the opposite of Chaplin’s much-maligned optimistic oratory at the end of The Great Dictator (1940), which was so maligned for being tacked on and forced. I’ll throw that charge at Baron Cohen’s feet. It’s the most memorable part of the film, but it feels like the filmmakers noticed that they hadn’t really been saying much for the previous hour and then added a message. For all their outrageousness, after the laughs subsided Borat and Brüno made thoughtful viewers think throughout about the way we treat people who are different. What should I be thinking about when The Dictator is over?