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The Grating Dictator

Sacha Baron Cohen’s recycled Borat shtick feels too safe


This article was published May 18, 2012 at 2:24 a.m.


Admiral General Alaweed (Sasha Baron Cohen) is an egotistical and ruthless dictator who is not above beating his citizens in a rigged foot race in The Dictator.

— The wonderful thing that has arisen from the Arab Spring is that people in the region can now ridicule tyrants like Moammar Gadhafi and Hosni Mubarak instead of quaking at the mention of their names.

British comic Sacha Baron Cohen would seem the ideal person to mock these despots. His comedy is often based on the sort of outrageous behavior that’s standard operating procedure for dictators.

It’s too bad that Baron Cohen and his regular director, Larry Charles, settled for simply rehashing Borat Sagdiyev, the sexually biased, anti-Semitic boor he so masterfully portrayed on Da Ali G Show and in Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan.

He plays Admiral General Alaweed, the sexually biased, anti-Semitic, boorish absolute ruler of the factious Republic of Wadiya.

When he’s not winning rigged footraces against his citizens, Alaweed is playing cruel, racially biased video games (which match his draconian policies) and trying unsuccessfully to launch a nuclear weapons program.

When he heads to New York to justify his tyranny and aggression before the United Nations, he quickly learns that his formidable power is fleeting and that friendship, as far as dictators are concerned, is conditional.

His second-in-command, Tamir (Ben Kingsley), engineers a coup by replacing Alaweed with a slow-witted goat herder (also played by Baron Cohen). With his flowing beard forcibly shaved from his face, Alaweed now looks like one of the numerous Wadiyan dissidents who’ve been exiledto New York.

As it turns out, that might work in his and the world’s favor. An American activist named Zoey (Anna Faris) rescues Alaweed without knowing that he’s the source of the refugees’ misery. The dictator also finds his former top nuclear scientist “Nuclear” Nadal (Jason Mantzoukas), and the two plot his return to power. If that task weren’t difficult enough, Alaweed is becoming infatuated with Zoey and her causes and may, just may, become the leader he should be.

To Baron Cohen and Charles’ credit, The Dictator avoids that simplistic if ultimately desirable outcome. Their cynicism helps keep unnecessary sentimentality in check. If Baron Cohen and his three co-writers crib from Charlie Chaplin’s classic The Great Dictator, they come up with a couple of interesting twists that make portions of The Dictator funny in its own right.

Whereas Chaplin ended his film with an earnest plea for love and tolerance, Baron Cohen sarcastically laments the “evils” of democracy by naming events when Western governments have acted in less than an egalitarian manner.

Unlike Borat or Bruno, The Dictator is completely scripted, and the storyline is flat to the point of flatlining in places. There is a wait time between moments of inspired tastelessness. But who knew you could view a birth from a soon-to-be newborn’s point of view?

Whereas Baron Cohen’s earlier TV and movie efforts benefited from his dangerous and disturbing ambushes of unsuspecting foils (forbidden fruit is always the tastiest), it’s not as funny knowing his victims are in on the joke.

Perhaps if Baron Cohen had resisted the urge to rework Borat in a safer environment, he wouldn’t have reminded viewers that his adequate work merely substitutes for his great stuff. The Dictator has its giggles, but it doesn’t leave a viewer with a love explosion like Da Ali G Show did.

The Dictator 78 Cast: Sacha Baron Cohen, Ben Kingsley, Jason Mantzoukas, Anna Faris, Kevin Corrigan Director: Larry Charles Rating: R for strong crude and sexual content, brief male nudity, language and some violent images Running time: 83 minutes

MovieStyle, Pages 33 on 05/18/2012

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