The Dictator: Movie review

James A. Robins, Yahoo! New Zealand May 17, 2012, 2:46 pm

Director: Larry Charles

Starring: Sacha Baron Cohen, Anna Faris, Ben Kingsley, Megan Fox

3.5 / 5

Sacha Baron Cohen does nothing by halves.

He stands at a lofty 6'3" tall, is roguishly handsome, educated at Cambridge, is married to one of the world's most beautiful women, and yet still finds it necessary to place a camera inside the birth canal of a pregnant woman in labour.

That doesn't happen literally, of course, but 'The Dictator' marks a shift away from the previous 'Borat' and 'Bruno' characters which were hangovers from the Ali G series. Instead Admiral General Aladeen (played by Baron Cohen), beloved dictator of the (fictional) Republic of Wadiya, is an entirely new creation, and a topical one at that.

Placing average Joe Blog in a situation where prejudices and bigoted diatribes could be easily aired was a core weapon in Baron Cohen's comedic armoury from Ali G's heyday in the early 2000s. It occurs here, too, though this time it's more contrived, and loaded with some shockingly funny gags.

Playing on the recent deaths of Kim Jong-Il, Osama Bin Laden, and Muammar Gaddafi, the increasing tension with Iran's Mahmood Ahmedinijad, and both the fallen and resilient despots of the Arab Spring, Aladeen is modelled on a distinctly Saddam Hussein-ish kind of awfulness.

Once a lavish Oppressor with a vast palace, a malfunctioning nuclear program, and a troop of busty, supposedly-virginal women to protect them, Aladeen ventures to the United Nations headquarters in order to show his disgust at the idea of democracy. Once there, his plotting brother (played by Ben Kingsley in 'The Hood' mode) kidnaps, shaves, and replaces him with a village idiot. Cue a journey of self-discovery and pacifist/feminist/vegan intervention in the form of Zoey (a pixie-cut sporting Anna Faris) who - SHOCK! HORROR! - doesn't shave her armpits.

There is zero shortage of offence to be caused in 'The Dictator'. Baron Cohen takes aim at women, Jews, terrorists, feminists, Sub-Saharan Africans, small-town Americans, African-Americans, the Chinese, Ed Norton, cancer patients, dwarfs, amputees, and so on.

But most notably 'The Dictator' is scripted from start to finish. So, each joke - highly offensive to at least one demographic in the audience - is pre-planned and premeditated. To the average eye, it would seem Admiral General Aladeen's blatant disregard for human emotion is a device by which Baron Cohen and his writers can extract every last gasp from the viewer, or as many mouth-widening inches as possible.

At its core, though, 'The Dictator' is a rigorous satire, perhaps even comparable to Charlie Chaplin's masterpiece 'The Great Dictator' in terms of subversive depth.

Just like 'Borat' unveiled an already-held belief of Little America's distinct anti-Semitism, homophobia, racism, and sexism, Wadiya's Great Dictator uncovers the hypocrisy of a modern United States.

In a lucid glimpse that many audiences will no doubt miss, Zoey (or "Hairy Potter" as Aladeen labels her) proclaims that she's so equal-oppourtunity and non-discriminating by insisting "I pretty much haven't had a white boyfriend since high school."

Further, at the film's climax, Aladeen's speech at the UN unveils a daring critique of the United States' system of government and society that is surprising to see in such a mainstream film. He's no longer playing on perception of race or religion, but addressing verifiable fact.

In a roundabout way, Baron Cohen manages to build on his more blatant skewering of prejudice by poking and prodding the astutely liberal and politically-correct portion of the audience that are so quick to cry foul at more obvious jibes in the past.

It's certainly no 'Borat' - Baron Cohen's uncontested zenith - and its scripted nature makes for some heavy-handed punch lines, but 'The Dictator' works well on more levels than just simple vulgarity and offence. It's a necessary and relevant modern satire... albeit one filled with penis jokes.

'The Dictator' is in NZ cinemas now.

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