Sacha Baron Cohen’s “The Dictator”—clearly inspired by, though very different from, Charlie Chaplin’s 1940 “The Great Dictator”—is pretty funny, but nowhere near as outrageous as it purports to be. Until near the close, in fact, its target is one that most audiences—at least western ones—will find it easy to chortle over, even when the gags and jokes ostentatiously fly in the face of political correctness and simple good taste. He’s Admiral General Aladeen (Cohen), the heavily-bearded, goofy ruler of the fictional oil-rich country of Wadiya in northeast Africa—a buffoon with a Red Queen complex who’s reduced to desperate straits when his greedy, ruthless security chief Tamir (Ben Kingsley) replaces him with an imbecilic double while on a trip to New York and he’s left to survive on his own. It’s only in a speech in the final reel that Cohen reverses things and challenges his viewers to consider their misguided ideas about their assumed superiority to other cultures. Not only is the turnaround a long time coming, but one wonders whether most Americans will laugh quite as lustily when it occurs as they did at the earlier material in which they could condescendingly guffaw over the stupidity of someone unlike themselves.
Still, the movie does offer lots of laughs, even if many of them are on the cheap side. It begins with Aladeen’s latest double being killed in an assassination attempt orchestrated by Tamir just before the great leader is scheduled to go to New York to speak before the UN on his nuclear weapons program, which has attracted international condemnation. Tamir quickly finds another double, a wide-eyed shepherd named Efawadh (also played by Cohen), and has the real Aladeen abducted by a bigoted security man (John C. Reilly) and replaced with this pliant fool. But the plan goes awry when Aladeen escapes, though shorn of his trademark beard in a darkly humorous “torture” scene.
From here on, “The Dictator” centers on Aladeen’s attempt to foil Tamir’s plan to dupe the world into believing that the false ruler is going to transform Wadiya into a democracy, though his real purpose is to auction off the country’s lucrative oil rights to greedy customers like a supremely sleazy Chinese official (Bobby Lee) who literally buys sexual favors from celebrities (most merely named, but some—who will remain unnamed—actually making cameo appearances).
Aladeen gets help in this from two unlikely allies. One is Zoey (Anna Faris), a street activist who mistakes him for a Wadiyan protester and gives him a job in her do-good store, even though he insults all the other refugees working there. She, of course, becomes the romantic interest, gradually softening his attitudes (though never entirely obliterating them)—we learn the truth of Aladeen’s plea early on that all he really wants is to be cuddled. His other helper is Nadal (Jason Mantzoukas), a nuclear scientist he’d summarily ordered executed but who—like all the others whose heads Aladeen had ordered chopped off—was spared by the executioner, winding up in the NY neighborhood known as Little Wadiya. Nadal aids Aladeen in replacing Efawadh before the latter can sign Tamir’s spurious new constitution for Wadiya. The two become an old-style slapstick duo, engaging in routines that vary from loony takeoffs on Americans’ fears of terrorism to old-fashioned slapstick bits like one modeled after Harold Lloyd that finds Cohen dangling from a rope strung between two skyscrapers.
Though there’s a postscript set in Wadiya, the real culmination is at the UN, where the restored Aladeen delivers that big speech about democracy. It’s here that he differs most from Chaplin, who ended his spoof of Hitler with a saccharine address on the unity of the common man. By contrast to Cohen it’s an opportunity to offer a sly commentary on Americans’ absurdly self-congratulatory self-image and condescending feelings of superiority, especially about their political system and international policies. It’s a moment that should choke off the easy laughs the picture has largely contented viewers with up till that point (the exception being an earlier bit of business about the raid that killed Osama bin Laden—maybe). Whether it will go over well is extremely doubtful in this hyper-chauvinistic age.
“The Dictator” represents Cohen moving into more conventional territory after the “Candid Camera” debut of “Borat” and the similarly guerrilla tactics of “Bruno.” It’s certainly more consistent than they were—and better-looking, too. Director Larry Charles obviously has greater control than in the earlier pictures, and the production is spiffy, with pro cinematography by Lawrence Sher and generally slick editing by Greg Hayden and Eric Kissack. Cohen may be no great actor, but he handles his double role with gusto (although unlike Chaplin’s little-man barber, Efawadh really hasn’t much to do), while Mantzoukas makes a good comic foil and Faris seems to enjoy playing sweetly dowdy. Even better are Kingsley, the grim straight man, and Reilly, who goes all out with the anti-everybody insults of Aladeen’s bumbling would-be killer.
One can imagine a much sharper, darker take on this material. But after the debacle of “Bruno” Cohen has taken aim at producing a mass entertainment that can still appeal to his hard-core fans, and with “The Dictator” he succeeds pretty well. Some will regret, however, that in tempering his own impulses he’s muffled what might have been.