The audacity of it. Sacha Baron Cohen manages to make a brutal North African dictator painfully funny.
"The Dictator" is fearlessly juvenile and strikingly smart, though not always at the same time. Sacha Baron Cohen's third starring feature, and the first to be fully scripted, is sharp as a scimitar in one scene and wobbly in the next, but it's unfailingly audacious. You've heard of take-no-prisoners satire? This is mockery that rounds up the prisoners and executes them. It's hard to think of another comedian who would construct a running gag around the various uses one can find for a decapitated head. Or film a sequence from the interior of a uterus. Not since "The Human Centipede" have I felt so worked over, but this time I liked it. It's so wrong, but it feels so right.
As North African dictator Adm. Gen. Aladeen, the star plays a hereditary tyrant who has been Wadiya's "glorious oppressor" since age 7. He orders executions as casually as you might order takeout pizza and merrily plays a video game about terrorists at the 1972 Munich Olympics. On a trip to New York City, where he intends to harangue the United Nations, he's kidnapped, shorn of his voluminous beard and cast onto the streets as a bum. He's taken in by Zoe (Anna Faris), the ultra-PC manager of an organic grocery store, who sees his strutting, confrontational hubris as merely a collection of teachable moments.
Director Larry Charles, who also helmed "Borat" and "Bruno," understands that the best way to make an unsympathetic character likable is to give him romantic problems. Aladeen's relationships with women have been kind of sketchy ever since his dad's henchmen smothered his mom in the delivery room. His vast wealth has allowed him to rack up a string of celebrity conquests (Megan Fox pops up in a self-mocking cameo), but he's never had the love of a good woman. Zoe is none too glamorous (Farris downplays her looks with a short brunette hairdo, assertive underarm hair and shapeless attire). Aladeen calls her a "Yeti." But hey, opposites attract. And it turns out that when you're running a hippie-dippy food co-op, a little bit of fascism might be just the thing you've been needing.
Baron Cohen plays a dual role as the vainglorious Aladeen and his imbecile body double, and he makes each one funny in distinctly different ways. Jason Mantzoukas plays a helpful countryman swept into the plot to return Aladeen to power.
The pair riff brightly together on the deeper meaning of wearing Crocs and share a brilliant scene in which they scare tourists on a Manhattan helicopter tour with a "Wadiyan" conversation that sounds a lot like a terrorist countdown. The film is well-paced, with most of the slack at the beginning, and the big gags near the finish.
Baron Cohen's shining moment comes when he delivers a speech denouncing the excesses of despotism in terms that sound a lot like the recent history of a certain global superpower. It hits uncomfortably close to home, but where there's no pain there's no comedy. "The Dictator" packs plenty of both.
Colin Covert • 612-673-7186