Cohen's "Dictator" most juvenile effort but still funny and pointed

The Dictator (2012)
83 min., rated R.
With 2006's "Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan" and 2009's "Brüno," writer-star Sacha Baron Cohen and director Larry Charles brazenly pushed political incorrectness with nude wrestling and talking penises, respectively, but the films were really razor-sharp, provocative, and hilariously inspired satires of American culture. While still daringly pointed, and gleefully and fearlessly offensive, "The Dictator" counts as their most juvenile and conventional effort so far. But that's okay: a joke that doesn't quite work is always quickly taken over by another and another.

Sacha Baron Cohen plays Admiral General Aladeen, the ignorant, anti-western dictator of Wadiya (a fictitiously oil-rich North African country) who develops nuclear warheads but demands them to be pointy. After the United Nations isn't too happy about his plans and they demand he address the council, Aladeen is America bound, heading to New York City. During his stay at The Lancaster hotel, his traitorous adviser Tamir (Ben Kingsley) has plans to assassinate Aladeen, having him kidnapped and shaven of his bushy beard, and then replace the despot with an idiotic body double as a decoy to sign a constitution that will bring democracy to Wadiya. Left for dead in a warehouse fire, the real Aladeen escapes but no one else recognizes him without his trademark facial hair. A far-left health-food co-op owner named Zoey (Anna Faris) rescues him from a Brooklyn political rally against Aladeen and he accepts a job from her since she and her political-refugee workers have catering access to the UN. Can Aladeen take back his place as the dictator and deny his people democratic freedom?

Disappointment sets in while watching "The Dictator," as it's not in the unscripted Candid Camera/Punk'd mockumentary style with ambush interviews and put-ons. Instead, the film comes from a script (by Cohen, Alec Berg, David Mandel, and Jeff Schaffer) that's a bit like a darker, raunchier "Coming to America" with sexist/racist/homophobic jokes. So while actual narrative storytelling sounds less fun, and is less prankish and dangerous than both "Borat" and "Brüno," Cohen still has not surrendered his chutzpah, again fully committing to another one of his outrageous personas. The film even begins with a title-card dedication, "In Loving Memory of Kim Jong-il." Then, by a news announcer, we're told Aladeen's history: He never met his mother, as she died during childbirth, cut to the woman being smothered with a pillow. That's when we know we're not in for a safe, PC reform that comes with a safety net. 

When "The Dictator" is offending anybody and everybody with Aladeen's sly insults, it's undeniably sharp and riotously funny. Cohen's character's political views on U.S. democracy and misogynistic remarks are unleashed with amusing sting. You may even feel guilty but laugh anyway when Aladeen and Nadal (Jason Mantzoukas), a weapons specialist thought to be executed in Wadiya, take a tour of the Manhattan skyline with white-bread American tourists and put them into a squirmy panic. Speaking in Arabic, Aladeen discussing his 911 Porsche is confused with September 11th. And Aladeen even lets us in on the "truth" behind Osama Bin Laden's assassination. But when Cohen and Charles turn Aladeen into Tom Green or a naughty Adam Sandler, the baser gross-out gags are hit-and-miss. Sure, we've never seen someone lose a cell phone inside of a woman's vagina while delivering a baby (with a shot of the woman's inside included) — ho ho! And zip-lining from a building roof to a Lancaster hotel room, Cohen gets to expose his penis. Crude-for-crude's-sake just isn't nearly as clever, though. Even when the film's humor is uneven, it's well-paced and runs like-a-bat-out-of-hell 83 minutes.

Otherwise, a lot of stuff sticks. There's a recurring bit with a severed head from a dead black kingpin at his wake. There's a running joke where Aladeen makes up his name. To Zoey, he's "Allison Burgers," but when he finds himself in the "Death to Aladeen Restaurant," he uses signs around the room (i.e. "Ladies Wash Room") to think up a name on the fly. But the restaurant is employed by all of his people that he ordered to be executed but weren't, so they don't buy it. Also, Aladeen's finger-across-the-throat signal (as in, "Kill him!") becomes its own through-line as well. Finally, the dictator's speech, skewering the current state of American democracy, is as cutting as a razor. Anything that's considered a taboo is exploited for uncomfortable shock laughs. And yet, everyone's a good sport. The adorable Anna Faris (initially unrecognizable looking like "a hobbit wearing a Chemo wig") schools her co-star on how to masturbate; an uncredited John C. Reilly cracks some anti-Arab jokes; Garry Shandling has his family kidnapped; and Megan Fox amusingly pokes fun at her sexpot image. The soundtrack also leaves an impression, peppered with Middle Eastern covers of American pop tunes "9 to 5" and "Everybody Hurts."

It might not have the spontaneity of Cohen's former guerrilla style of comedy filmmaking, but nothing is sacred for the filmmakers' satirical targets. If you get your laughs from a movie that takes chances but doesn't have contempt for its audience, "The Dictator" might tickle your guilty-pleasure funny bone. Cohen is gifted enough as a screen comedian that he gets away with murder, but now, let's see what other weapons he has in his arsenal.

Grade: B -