Film review: ‘The Dictator’ is humorous, but stretches bad taste

Sacha Baron Cohen (left) and Ben Kingsley in 'The Dictator.'
(Paramount Pictures)

Sacha Baron Cohen’s central shtick — semi-documentary episodes in which he entraps real people — has always, by its nature, had a built-in self-destruct mechanism. The more famous he becomes, the less likely that anyone will fall for his masquerades as Ali G, Borat and Bruno. With “The Dictator,” he finally abandons his “Candid Camera”-like stunts for a fully written script — perhaps with some improvisation — acted by professionals. In other words: No innocent bystanders were humiliated in the production of this motion picture.

It’s not the first time he’s worked this way: “Ali G Indahouse,” his hilarious bigscreen debut — never released here theatrically — was fully scripted with almost no real-world footage.

His latest persona — which he is maintaining throughout his promotional appearances — is ever-bearded Admiral General Haffaz Aladeen, Supreme Leader, Chief Ophthalmologist, Invincible, All Triumphant, Beloved Oppressor of the People of Wadiya, and excellent swimmer, including butterfly. This genially cruel dictator and all-around halfwit arrives in New York to address the U.N., but his scheming second-in-command (Ben Kingsley) has hired a zealous security expert (John C. Reilly) to kill him and replace him with an even stupider lookalike (Baron Cohen again).

Aladeen escapes, but finds himself clueless, beardless, and adrift in New York. He locates “Little Wadiya,” a neighborhood filled with angry anti-him refugees. Among them is a former minion (Jason Mantzoukas), who he bribes to help him. They plan to expose the impostor so Aladeen can resume his rightful position; meanwhile, our hero is hired by the hopelessly naive Zoe (Anna Faris) to work in her health-food store.

The plot is basically a dark-hearted update of Eddie Murphy’s “Coming to America.” Aladeen is hardly the first comic protagonist who, in the real world, would be an utterly loathsome jerk and an insufferable narcissist. There have been plenty of lovable comic killers. But he may be the first to be rabidly anti-Semitic; and his level of sexism certainly comes close to setting a new record. (“What are you having?” he asks a pregnant woman. “A boy? Or an abortion?”)

My colleague Luke Y. Thompson has astutely compared Aladeen to “South Park’s” Eric Cartman — a completely loathsome character with whom we sometimes nonetheless sympathize. Of course, Cartman has the excuse of being a 10-year-old; Aladeen merely has the mind of a 10-year-old.

“The Dictator” is definitely not going to be everyone’s cup of tea. Baron Cohen continues to stretch every notion of good taste beyond the breaking point. Yes, there is a funny scene that refers to 9/11. Yes, we see Aladeen playing a first-person-shooter Wii game based on the terrorist kidnappings at the Munich Olympics. If you can’t imagine any possible context in which that could remotely be amusing, then you might want to give “The Dictator” a pass.

But you’d be missing out on the funniest film so far this year. Most of the humor doesn’t cut quite so close to the bone. “The Dictator” also has slapstick and dumb-guy jokes and even a sort of cerebral, surreal gag about meat (sort of a reconfiguration of the funniest bit in the underrated Freaked). And, near the end, the satirical mirror reflects back on us, as Aladeen gives a heartfelt speech about what life is like without democracy, which sounds suspiciously like our current politics.

ANDY KLEIN is the film critic for Marquee. He can also be heard on “FilmWeek” on KPCC-FM (89.3).