Say it isn’t so. is sacha Baron Cohen, a.k.a. Ali G, Borat and Brüno, actually starring in a movie with a semicoherent plot? Seems like it. There’s not a mock-doc, improvised, caught-on-the-fly, “gotcha!” moment in all of The Dictator. Baron Cohen wrote the linear script with Alec Berg, David Mandel and Jeff Schaffer. And Larry Charles, who directed Borat and Brüno, stages every scene with emotional maturity and military precision. Hell, I’m lying. The Dictator zigs and zags through its scant 84 minutes as if running wild to save its crazy ass. Oddly enough, this is a good thing. Even with a blueprint to follow, the Cambridge-educated Baron Cohen is always best when he jumps the fences of comedy. That’s why The Dictator leaves you laughing helplessly. It starts at outrageous and rockets on from there. Screw the occasional sputter.
Baron Cohen plays Admiral General Haffaz Aladeen, dictator of the fictional North African country of Wadiya, with a beard that’s almost as bogus as his accent. The Supreme Leader lives to oppress, launching a reign of terror from his palace; that is, when he isn’t boffing visiting Hollywood royalty (Megan Fox cameos amusingly as herself). On a trip to New York, Aladeen takes crap from a hotel manager (a terrific John C. Reilly), who mistakes him for an Arab. “You’re all Arabs to me,” says the manager, “the blacks, the Jews, those blue, tree-hugging queers in Avatar.” In a short time, Aladeen’s second-in-command, Tamir (Ben Kingsley barely suppressing a giggle), has shaved his ruler’s beard and stripped him of power. Eddie Murphy covered similar ground in 1988’s Coming to America, but Baron Cohen doesn’t play it nearly as gentle. Forced to live in disguise as a commoner on the mean streets of Manhattan, Aladeen resents being gamed out of his throne by Tamir and Efawadh (Baron Cohen again), a truly idiotic body double. He plots revenge with the help of Nadal (Jason Mantzoukas is a hoot), a nuclear expert he thought he had executed back home. Sexual arousal comes in the hairy armpits of Zoey (Anna Faris), a left-wing Brooklyn zealot preaching organic veggies and “death to Aladeen” (not knowing he’s the man she’s falling for). “I love it when women go to school,” says Aladeen. “It’s like seeing a monkey on roller skates: It means nothing to them, but it’s so adorable for us.”
The better gags, including Zoey schooling her new squeeze in the how-to of jerking off and Aladeen panicking American tourists during a chopper ride over Manhattan, lead up to a stingingly funny climax in which Aladeen gives his big speech about dictatorship. The fearless satirist in Baron Cohen is alive and well in this killer sequence, which dodges soothing convention and ultimately merits comparisons to the Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup and Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator. “You don’t know how good you have it here,” says Aladeen to the heart of democracy. In his country, he claims, the top one per cent control all the wealth, and a dictator can declare war with impunity, even on the wrong country. Talk about laughs that stick in the throat.