May 23, 2012
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Sasha Baron Cohen, the British comedian famous for pranking unsuspecting Americans in the over-the-top mockumentaries “Brüno” and “Borat,” makes a much more conventional comedy with this satiric rip about a Middle Eastern “mad dog” despot.
It’s “conventional” in that it’s a straight-up comedy, not an elaborate ruse that makes its rube victims the butt of the joke. But being conventional doesn’t mean it’s any less likely to rock someone’s boat.
Cohen, working once again with director (and former “Seinfeld” TV writer) Larry Charles, has never been shy to tread on, shall we say, areas of sensitivity. And “The Dictator” is a full-on, politically incorrect military assault that makes sure it not only covers, but beats down pretty much everything that someone, somewhere would consider precious and dear. There are jokes about sex, race, women, religion, instruments of torture, acts of terrorism, 9/11, and people who eat at Applebees. There are bits involving anatomical nether regions, references to just about every form of bodily fluid, and a scene in which we find out that pigeon poop isn’t the only dropping that can make for a messy morning stroll through Manhattan.
It’s audaciously offensive ...and sometimes flat-out hilarious.
Cohen (also one of the writers) stars as Gen. Aladeen, the tyrannical, Gaddafi-esque dictator of the fictional republic of Wadiya. When his plans to produce weapons-grade unanium hit a diplomatic snag, he’s forced to make a trip into the heart of the evil empire---New York City, U.S.A.---to address the United Nations.
On America’s golden shores, Aladeen falls victim to a foiled assassination attempt orchestrated by his older brother (Sir Ben Kingsley), forcing him to go into hiding in the Big Apple. As he plots to regain his throne, he uses a Brooklyn whole-foods store run by a waifish feminist vegetarian eco-activist (Anna Faris) as his cover.
The cast includes several familiar faces in cameos, including Megan Fox, John C. Reilly, Chris Elliott, Edward Norton and Gary Shandling.
Much of what follows is your basic fish-out-of-water comedy, but immersed (and gargling) in Cohen’s take-no-prisoners, push-the-envelope humor. Be warned, this is hard stuff. If you don’t have the stomach for it, you’d be best advised to stay away from the bar.
But if you’re not outraged, you may indeed find it funny...if not occasionally brilliant. Cohen’s send-up, which mashes both American and Middle Eastern stereotypes into one big, bubbling joke of a melting pot, is ballsy, you’ve got to give him that. As a satirist, he’s doing what satirists have done for centuries, projecting barbed contemporary commentary through the prism of humor.
And as a moviemaker, he’s following a line all the way back to Charlie Chaplin. The genius film pioneer wrote, directed and starred in his own parody of another tyrant back in 1940 when his then-controversial “The Great Dictator” took comedic aim at Adolph Hitler, fascism, anti-Semitism and the growing threat of the Nazi empire.
Love him or loath him, Cohen and his gonzo comedy aren’t for everybody. But just remember, 70 years ago, neither was Charlie Chaplin.