“All of the good dictators are gone: Saddam, Kim-Jung, Gadhafi, Cheney. You are the last of the great dictators!” the head of Wadiya’s nuclear weapons program Nadal (Jason Mantzoukas) declares to Admiral General Aladeen (Sacha Baron Cohen) in Baron Cohen’s new movie, “The Dictator,” which was released Wednesday, May 16. While Baron Cohen is best known for his mockumentaries “Borat” and “Bruno,” Baron Cohen takes a leap into fully scripted film for the third installment of his satirical brand of off-the-wall comedy. This time Baron Cohen chooses to follow the story of the eccentric dictator Admiral General Aladeen and his adventures through New York to restore his totalitarian rule after being betrayed by his power-hungry uncle (Ben Kingsley).
As always, nothing is off limits, as Baron Cohen takes on everyone from the eccentric despots of rogue oppressive countries to those of Williamsburg-based hipster counterculture. The latter of which include Zoey (Anna Farris), the hairy arm-pitted, organic co-op-owning love interest of Baron Cohen’s Aladeen, who is portrayed in Faris’s usual quirky fashion with a refreshing addition of feminist anger. Another notable performance comes from John C. Reilly in his short-lived role as Clayton, the ultra-racist security guard hired to look after Aladeen. In this role, Reilly stays in familiar territory, switching between his tough-man-Americana and hurt-child personalities, yet his connection with Baron Cohen in their “torture” scene provides a dynamic transition from the film’s start in fictional Wadiya to the actual plot in New York City.
Of course, the best performance is none other than Baron Cohen’s. Like Farris and Reilly, Baron Cohen relies on his own natural stock character—an ego-tripped foreigner blundering about America. Though Baron Cohen crafted this character around his improvisational skills, the film’s script adds another layer by allowing him to develop jokes to a further level. For example, in a scene in which Aladeen and some American tourists take a sightseeing helicopter ride over New York, Aladeen talks in Wadiyan (which, like the Khazakh in “Borat,” is merely accented Hebrew) about seeing fireworks explode over the Statue of Liberty and buying a Porsche 911, in 2012 (comments which are misinterpreted by the tourists as plans for a 9/11-type attack in 2012). Despite its inevitable punch line, it is the buildup, each joke a little bit more offensive, that makes this scene funny, something that could never be achieved in Baron Cohen’s less controlled works.
The scripting does, however, take its toll, especially for those who expect an exact duplicate of “Borat” or “Bruno.” But in Baron Cohen’s defense, he is now almost too well known to interview civilians in disguise. Nevertheless, the script does slow the film down in some places, as time must be taken to progress the plot as well. It also eliminates the reality factor of Baron Cohen’s satires in that he doesn’t get actual responses from actual people. Essentially, he is reduced to painting his own picture when before he was able hold up a mirror to American culture. While this aspect of his humor isn’t up to par with “Borat” or “Bruno,” Baron Cohen remains the king of shock laughs that sometimes make you feel bad for laughing.
All accents and low-brow humor aside, “The Dictator” provides insightful political commentary in line with all of Baron Cohen’s work. It is important for him to not only make people laugh, but also to draw their attention to what they are laughing at, and why it poses a problem. His most poignant commentary comes from Aladeen’s climactic speech. “Imagine for one second if the United States was a dictatorship,” he says. “One percent of the population could own all of the wealth, while policies aimed to help the poor such as Healthcare could go unfunded. You could have a media that is supposed to be liberal but is really run by one man and his family. You could detain members of a particular race in prisons and nobody would say anything. You could trick the people into supporting policies that actually harm them. All of this could come true if the United States were a dictatorship.”
As Admiral General Aladeen and Zoey return to Wadyia, Baron Cohen leaves us wondering who the dictator really is.