‘Dictator’ delivers heavy-handed jokes

Sacha Baron Cohen’s first scripted comedy hits the mark – mostly
by Willie Krischke

Sacha Baron Cohen’s last two films, “Borat” and “Bruno,” were unique in the comedy world. Not because they were shocking and offensive – everything’s shocking and offensive any more, which is another way of saying that nothing is – but because they weren’t scripted and involved real people. Even when the jokes flopped, the tension generated by watching real people react to this joker in their midst kept things interesting. I always wondered if someone was finally going to punch the guy.  I’m kind of disappointed no one ever did.  

“The Dictator” actually keeps to a script, and all the people are fake. This departure from formula (or departure to formula, I guess) might be cause for concern — can Baron Cohen be funny like other comic actors, or was it all just a gross-out gimmick? Is he Steve Martin, or more Tom Green?  

“The Dictator” gives us every reason to believe that Baron Cohen has actually done his homework, becoming a student of classic comedies and comic acting in order to make this transition in his work. The film is littered with references to classic comics, from Groucho Marx (Baron Cohen’s particular blend of wacky satire has always owed a great debt to the Marx brothers) to Charlie Chaplin, from Will Ferrell to Eddie Murphy. As a result, Baron Cohen looks ready to take his place alongside seasoned comic actors in the summer blockbuster vein.

Baron Cohen plays Admiral General Aladeen, cheerful dictator of a tiny oil-rich country called Wadiya. Ben Kingsley plays his right hand man and rightful heir. Aladeen is trying to develop nuclear weapons, but his efforts are impeded by his insistence that the missiles be pointy and his propensity for executing nuclear scientists. Aladeen travels to New York City for an important UN meeting, where he will insist that his nuclear facilities are solely intended for medical research and clean energy technology (even he can’t say this without cracking up). But before he gets his chance, he is kidnapped by John C. Reilly, who is working for Kingsley. In one of the most inspired bits in the film, Reilly’s attempts to torture and kill him go hilariously awry, and he really only manages to shave off his massive beard. Kingsley replaces Aladeen with an idiotic lookalike who has an inordinate affection for goats. Beardless and befriended by feminist vegan lesbian leftwing activists, Aladeen has three days to expose this fraud before Kingsley converts Wadiya into a democracy and allows BP and Exxon to exploit its oil reserves.  

“The Dictator” takes a quantity-over-quality approach to its jokes; they are randomly sprayed at the screen as fast as possible, in the hopes that enough will hit to keep you entertained and laughing. It mostly works, though there are certainly some bits I could do without and some that could have been sharpened. Of course, Baron Cohen hasn’t really lost his willingness to shock and offend, and the subject matter here necessitates quite a number of jokes about terrorism, Islam, Jews and politics, so folks sensitive on those issues probably should stay away.

The crowning moment in “The Dictator” comes in an inspired speech Aladeen finally delivers to the United Nations as he wrenches his belovedly oppressed country from the fires of democracy. Put on the spot, he tries to convince the world that dictatorship is the best possible government, because as a dictator, you can help the 1 percent of the country who are your rich friends to grow even richer, you can manipulate the mass media to keep the citizens in a state of fear and confusion, you can spy on your own citizens, you can wage wars against foreign countries for no reason … you get the idea.  It’s a great speech, reminiscent of Charlie Chaplin’s at the end of “The Great Dictator,” but funny and satirical rather than high-minded and defiant.  

Even as it called out to various comedy classics down through the years, “The Dictator” reminded me of some of Will Ferrell’s better comedies. Like “Talladega Nights” or “Anchorman.” The film puts an essentially ridiculous character into a situation and then just lets him bounce off the people he finds there. The plot is extraneous; it’s the bits that matter. A dictator working in a vegan grocery store is a funny idea. Not all the ideas in “The Dictator” are that funny, but enough are, and that makes it an above-average comedy.