It’s a safe bet that ‘The Dictator’ will be 2012’s only feature presented ‘in loving memory of Kim Jong Il’. This latest outrage from Sacha Baron Cohen and director Larry Charles continues the template set down in ‘Borat’ and ‘Brüno’, offering the spectacle of an outlandishly foreign, preposterously unreconstructed ego monster set loose on American soil. Despite its timeliness – North African despots are so hot right now – ‘The Dictator’ has far less satirical bite than its predecessors and is flimsier as filmmaking. But it’s funny as hell.
Admiral General Aladeen (Baron Cohen), ‘beloved oppressor’ since childhood of fictional rogue state Wadiya, enjoys a trigger-happy life of inane luxury and whimsical terror. A run-in with weapons inspectors necessitates a visit to the UN in New York, where things swiftly go from ‘Crocodile Dundee’ to ‘After Hours’: Aladeen finds himself adrift in Brooklyn, avoiding dissident diners in Little Wadiya and working at a vegan feminist cooperative run by adorably strident Zoey (Anna Faris). There’s also some business with a former underling (Jason Mantzoukas) and a nefarious rival (Ben Kingsley, underused) in the run-up to the signing of a new democratic mandate for Wadiya.
There’s a lightweight quality to ‘The Dictator’ compared to its predecessors. The fact that Aladeen’s delusions of grandeur aren’t quite delusions – he does run a country, after all – makes him less compelling than Ali G, Borat or Brüno, while the film’s other characters and plotting are perfunctory. Most regrettable is the loss of the candid-camera interactions with real-life stooges that allowed ‘Borat’ and especially ‘Brüno’ to take a genuinely sharp satirical edge to American culture; nor is there any substantial engagement with the mechanics of actual oppression. As some lame shtick with Aladeen’s imbecilic double makes clear, ‘The Great Dictator’ this ain’t – although one wittily subversive speech towards the end is pleasingly barbed.
Still, if a comedy is meant to make you laugh, mission accomplished. As a series of wonderfully grotesque set-pieces, ‘The Dictator’ delivers, from the Munich massacre à la Wii and a helicopter ride from hell to hipster blowback and genital slapstick. Baron Cohen’s talents as a clown find their the ideal vehicle in this onslaught of sheer tastelessness – a cluster-bomb of comic coups enveloping neo-cons and fem-lit, torture and amniotic fluid, linguistics and architecture, wanking and severed heads. And there is room for one touching moment: when Aladeen sees Zoey haranguing a cop, her finger in his face, her features a mask of indignant self-regard, he realises this might just be the girl for him.