Pity poor Sacha Baron Cohen.
At just 35, he released a film destined to become a comedy classic. And it's clear that the British comedian will never be able to top it. "Borat" was sui generis. Baron Cohen couldn't have replicated its success, even had he wanted to.
That's partly because the film owes much of its humor to Baron Cohen's unscripted interactions with real Americans, who thought they were actually talking to a clueless Kazakh journalist. But it's also in part because "Borat" introduced us to a new talent who seemed to put everything he had into a movie that clocked in at less than 90 minutes. The next feature he produced and wrote, "Bruno," wasn't nearly so funny.
|3 out of 4 stars|
|Stars: Sacha Baron Cohen, Anna Faris, Ben Kingsley|
|Director: Larry Charles|
|Rated: R for strong crude and sexual content, brief male nudity, language and some violent images|
|Running time: 83 minutes|
"The Dictator," his latest creation, is a return to form, for the most part. No, the film isn't as funny as "Borat." How many films could be? But he's made a wise move here. In going back to the concerns that truly animate him -- the absurdity of politics, the banality of anti-Semitism -- Baron Cohen proves he is still one of our most relevant satirists.
He plays the title character, the leader of the "rogue North African state" of the fictional Wadiya, and a sort of amalgam of the late tyrants Moammar Gadhafi and Saddam Hussein. Adm. Gen. Aladeen, as he's formally known, is close to securing nuclear weaponry. A clip from President Obama's speech about Iran -- "I will take no option off the table" -- is used to indicate the seriousness of the crisis.
Except the statesmen of this world seem to take Wadiya more seriously than they do Iran. They're readying to strike -- unless Aladeen comes to New York and speaks to the United Nations in person about his promise to stay peaceful.
That's when his right-hand man, Tamir (Ben Kingsley), sees his chance. He hires an American to kill Aladeen and puts in his place a body double too stupid to realize he's being manipulated. Tamir announces Aladeen plans to bring democracy to Wadiya -- and sell its oil to China, once Tamir is paid a finder's fee.
Aladeen escapes the hit -- but his beard does not. Unrecognized, he finds himself adrift in New York, his only friend a clueless leftie who mistakes him for a dissident. Zoey (Anna Faris) gives him a job at her Free Earth Collection, a store "for people of all or no genders." He uses the unlikely position to plot to get his more powerful position back.
The one disappointment of "The Dictator" is the acting of its star. Baron Cohen either has phoned it in, or is simply not that great of an actor -- his best roles, after all, have been mostly improvised. Watching subpar acting is a small price to pay for the laugh-out-loud jokes he writes, though. In Wadiya, Aladeen plays a video games whose levels are set in places like the Achille Lauro. (How many moviegoers will get that gag?)
It might seem that here, Baron Cohen is doing nothing but poking fun at a couple of dead dictators. But their spirit is alive and well across the Middle East. And his satire can hit home. His concluding speech to the U.N. contains some well-earned jabs at democracy -- our democracy. The man wouldn't be a misanthrope worth the name if he weren't an equal-opportunity doubter.