I have—to varying degrees—liked Sacha Baron Cohen’s earlier films, but when it got right down to it, it was disposable stuff. I cannot even imagine bothering to sit through those movies a second time. Really, once the shock value is gone, what’s left? Well, I suppose all the tedious set-ups and the gags that don’t quite work are left, but those aren’t exactly inducements. Now, I may not follow through on it, but I can at least imagine watching The Dictator again. That’s partly because this one has a plot and is more of a “real” movie—something that improves the pace tremendously. But more, this strikes me as having more point and more genuine wit. Oh, sure, it’s still out to offend you—and I’d bet it’ll succeed in that regard with lots of people. (I don’t think any movie that can get a seal from the MPAA is going to offend me. Appall me, yes, but not offend.) But The Dictator isn’t only about offending.
I can’t imagine—after all of Baron Cohen’s appearances in character—that there are too many out there who don’t know that The Dictator presents him as General Admiral Haffaz Aladeen, the ruler of the fictional North African country Wadiya, who goes to America to reassure the world of his good intentions. All the while, his wicked uncle (Ben Kingsley) is planning to overthrow him. Similarly, you probably know that he’s a buffoonish version of any number of real-life rulers of not wholly dissimilar countries. In other words, this is Baron Cohen’s attempt at something like Charles Chaplin playing Adenoid Hynkel in The Great Dictator (1940)—and to cement that point Baron Cohen also plays Aladeen’s double, Efawadh (no comment on the name).
No, I’m not making a case that this is anywhere near The Great Dictator. It’s too anarchic, for one thing, and the moronic, goat-loving Efawadh is hardly in the same league as Chaplin’s unnamed Jewish Barber. But the similarities are hardly coincidental. Even such things as Aladeen’s transparent lies about wanting weapons grade uranium for purely peaceful purposes aren’t that far removed from Hynkel’s lies in his speeches. Similarly, his assessment of an array of outmoded torture instruments is only a gross-out version of things like Fieldmarshall Herring (Billy Gilbert) enthusing, “We’ve just discovered the most marvelous poison gas! It will kill everybody!” (And remember, this was considered in poor taste in 1940.) For that matter, Baron Cohen also gives himself a speech near the film’s end, though it’s much shorter and quite different in tone. (It starts with, “Imagine if America was a dictatorship. You could let one percent of the people have all the wealth. You could help your rich friends get richer by cutting their taxes”—and goes from there.)
Now, with all that in mind, it should be noted that first and foremost, The Dictator is aiming for laughs—not wholesome ones necessarily, but laughs. The laughs are often at the expense of Aladeen (as when he’s reminded of the “Menudo incident” ), but his vegan romantic interest (an almost unrecognizable Anna Faris) gets her fair share, as do Megan Fox, Edward Norton (showing a sense of humor about himself that surprised me), and anybody who happens along. The smartest thing the film does is to make Aladeen about a centimeter shy of being a moron—not to mention that he’s not nearly as successful at being a despot as he thinks he is (let’s just say he has something in common with a Lewis Carroll character). It wisely doesn’t make him a hero, but it makes him more amusing than not. Rated R for strong crude and sexual content, brief male nudity, language and some violent images.