Sacha Baron Cohen’s The Dictator: He Has Ways of Making You Laugh

As Borat and Brüno he was the supreme scamp of ambush comedy. Now he channels Gaddafi for his riskiest venture: being kind of sweet

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Paramount Pictures

Sacha Baron Cohen showed up, in Aladeen guise, on the May 5 Saturday Night Live. He displayed a blood-stained letter from the New York Times critic A.O. Scott that read, “The Dictator is the best film I have seen in the last 10 years. There, I said it. Please, please, not my face.” Roger Ebert gave the movie two thumbs up, and Aladeen had the severed thumbs to prove it. Finally he summoned a hooded figure: Martin Scorsese, who had directed Baron Cohen in Hugo. Under the General’s subtle prodding, plus electrodes attached who-knows-where, Scorsese screamed that The Dictator is “better than Raging Bull.”

(READ: Corliss’ review of Scorsese’s Hugo)

The following Saturday, during SNL’s first commercial break, a promo for The Dictator appeared. Most of the quotes were from my review that had just been published in the magazine. “TIME magazine raves!” the announcer said. That’s an utter exaggeration: what I really did was purr my pleasure. For a rave I’d need to be waterboarded.

Torture for pleasure: that could be the strategy Baron Cohen pursued in the three characters he hatched on British TV more than a decade ago. The belligerent “voice of da yoof” Ali G, the Kazakhstani journalist Borat Sagdiyev and the suffocatingly gay Austrian fashionista Brüno turned interviews into outage, sandbagging public figures with rudely pertinent questions and ordinary folks with his confrontational antics. From these loopy characters came three movies: Ali G Indahouse (2002) and the prime mockumentaries Borat: Cultural Learnings for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (2006) and Brüno (2009).

(READ: Corliss on Sacha Baron Cohen and Brüno)

In The Dictator, Baron Cohen tries a new shock tactic: massage. Reuniting with his Borat and Brüno director Larry Charles, and employing a trio of writers (Alan Berg, David Mandel and Jeff Schaffer) who worked with Charles on Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm, the actor-author gives this scripted, infernally funny comedy a vibe more Monty Python than Ali G; it’s kinder if not gentler. It even breaks the Seinfeld rule of “no learning, no hugging”; there’s a little of both here. And the movie’s dirtiest secret is that it’s also a love story.

The extravagantly bearded despot of Wadiya — as in: Wadiya doin’ now, Sacha? — Aladeen is a crackpot mélange of tyrants from Kim Jong-il (to whose “loving memory” the film is dedicated) to Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi. His palace garden is ornamented with gigantic topiary in his image. He slakes his priapic appetite by having sex with the world-famous; his wall of conquests includes Arnold Schwarzenegger and Oprah Winfrey. For fun he orders the death of anyone who crosses him, and plays a video game of the Munich Olympics massacre. His top nuclear physicist, Nadal (Jason Mantzoukas) has tried building him a weapon called the Beard of Doom, but the project is hobbled by Aladeen’s insistence that their rocket science must adhere to the laws of the old Warner Bros. cartoons where Daffy Duck gets his beak blown off.

(SEE: The Dictator dumps ashes on Ryan Seacrest at the Oscars)

Insurrection is brewing in Wadiya. Tamir (Ben Kingsley), the country’s rightful heir, deposes Aladeen and replaces him with an idiot double (also Baron Cohen), adding the instructions to “bleach his skin and shorten his penis.” The real dictator shaves his beard and travels incognito to New York City, where the double is to announce a change of Wadiyan policy at the United Nations. Aladeen escapes the lair of a CIA-rogue type (John C. Reilly) who tries torturing him with “the Kandahar cockwrench” but gets nothing but insolence from the dictator, who says the device has “actually been banned in Saudi Arabia for being too safe.”

He escapes and lands in gentrified Brooklyn, where all the Wadiyan dissidents he thought Tamir had executed have emigrated. Nadal is there, having secured a job as a Mac genius, which, he explains, mostly means “removing semen from laptops.” Nearby is the Free Earth cooperative, a communal market modeled on the legendary or infamous Park Slope Food Co-op. There the dictator takes a job under the solemnly socialist tutelage of Zoe (perennial cutie Anna Faris), who sports underarm hair as luxuriant as Aladeen’s former beard and believes in every dogma he hates. Cue the impossible, inevitable romance.

(READ: James Poniewozik on the Park Slop Food Co-op and The Daily Show)

Beneath its jokes about the New York Police Department (when Zoe calls them fascists, Aladeen adds, “And not in a good way”) and Osama bin Laden (who, the General confides, “has been staying in my guest house ever since they shot his double last year”), The Dictator is a comedy that wouldn’t mind being loved. Applying the same fish-out-of-water premise that Tim Burton worked to death with Johnny Depp’s vampire in Dark Shadows, Baron Cohen makes Aladeen sympathetic by shearing his beard and robbing him of his power. Now he’s just another Brooklyn schlub — though one with the resourcefulness to overcome his lowly status, and the wayward charm to win over a woman he calls “a midget in a chemo wig.”

In my review for the magazine, I wrote that Baron Cohen’s characters follow “the tradition of movie comedy anarchy, from the silent buffoon Harry Langdon to the Marx Brothers and Three Stooges and, in slightly milder form, to Jerry Lewis, Jim Carrey and Adam Sandler. All are innocents who never got the memo about acting grown-up. Baron Cohen simply gives this infantile ignorance a foreign accent and unleashes it in America, holding up a funhouse mirror to the country’s prejudices and repression.”

(SEE: Corliss’s review of The Three Stooges)

I should have mentioned Charlie Chaplin among the clowns, for The Dictator is a modern, more biting version of Chaplin’s 1940 film The Great Dictator, in which the star-director playing both a mittel-European emperor in the Adolf Hitler mold and his double, a Jewish barber. Chaplin’s movie ends with the barber replacing the strongman and pleading fervently for peace. (“Soldiers! Don’t fight for slavery! Fight for liberty!”)

Baron Cohen, a Jewish intellectual playing a slightly chastened (but still anti-Jewish) autocrat, gives Aladeen a big speech too: he outlines the steps that America would have to take to become a dictatorship — detaining political prisoners without trial, putting the media in the hands of one man — most of which we have achieved under Republican and Democratic Presidents. Leftists have often argued that the U.S. is a fascist country; Alexander Cockburn recently floated the notion in The Nation. But it’s weird and (this leftie says) salutary to find the thesis propounded as the emotional climax of a would-be mainstream movie.

(SEE: Baron Cohen’s Brüno in Top 10 Alter Egos)

Folks won’t see The Dictator for its political sentiments; they’ll go for the rambunctious wit, and because Baron Cohen has paraded his character on every TV show short of Cash Cab. I wish Aladeen well, even if I never got to be tortured by him.