When Sacha Baron Cohen took the world by storm with his outrageously crass, absurdly incorrect stunt comedy Borat, the world’s shocked reaction praised the man for both his bravery and his insight. In addition to being riotously funny, the allegedly authentic interactions between Baron Cohen’s clueless, culturally insensitive twit and the average Americans he encountered during the movie’s making were said to have held up an unflattering reflection to a nation’s inherent prejudice and underlying xenophobia.
Yet, despite the overwhelming adulation poured on the man and the movie, there remained an uncomfortable air of hypocrisy that made it difficult for a few simply to relax and smell the comedic roses. Yes, some of the movie’s unwitting victims reacted badly, yet the fact remains that Sacha Baron Cohen was doing everything possible within his power to provoke such a reaction. No one ever wants to think of him or herself as intolerant, but can those who tittered with such a smug sense of self-satisfaction honestly claim that they would have reacted differently if a complete stranger (whatever his nationality) tried to kiss them on the subway?
His similarly themed follow-up� Bruno, was inevitably a disappointment, in no small part because Baron Cohen was now a victim of his own initial success. People were now wise to the man and his antics, making the organic embarrassment all the more difficult to come by. Now, with The Dictator, he has finally dropped the pretense that this is anything other than an entirely made-up, pre-scripted story. Yet just about every other element remains: the painfully inappropriate antics, the nauseating comedy of embarrassment, and the equal-opportunity offending of every racial and cultural minority known to mankind, and perhaps even one or two new ones (midget boys in chemo wigs get savaged viciously).
Throughout his career, Baron Cohen’s stock-in-trade has always been fish-out-of-water hijinks, and by now he has this formula refined down to a diamond-tipped spear, wasting no time in getting his fictional despot, General Aladeen, pampered dictator of the made-up African nation of Wadiya, to America. After his uncle (Ben Kingsley) mistakenly assassinates Alandeen’s double, before installing one of his own as a puppet, the real Aladeen is left abandoned in New York with only a hippy do-gooder (Anna Faris) and a nuclear scientist he once tried to have executed (Jason Mantzoukas) for support.
Evan at a lean 83 minutes the script is flimsy, with the ethnic stereotypes supposedly being lampooned at times appearing to come from all four corners of the globe simultaneously. A running gag about how in a vain abuse of power the General changed over 400 words in the dictionary to ‘Aladeen’ allows some of the cruder gags to slip through unmolested by the sensors, and the wall of sexual conquests as documented by Polaroid is worth the price of admission by itself – look up the term “good sport” in the dictionary and there must surely be a picture of Megan Fox.
What is most beneficial is, having finally owned up to the idea that this is just a movie, the ability to pull in some Grade A support, notably in the form of John C. Reilly’s neurotically insecure torturer, and Anna Faris in another of the ditzy cupcake roles she seemingly does better than anyone in the world. Best of all is Jason Mantzoukas in the role of the reluctant sidekick who beautifully undersells his ever-more exasperated persona as the only character in the movie gifted a brain in his head.
Of course, this wouldn’t be a Sacha Baron Cohen flick if we were not asked to run a gauntlet of gross-out gags ranging from the sublimely inspired (what do you imagine a goat farmer would do when confronted by four extremely large breasted women?) to the obnoxiously lazy (more scat humor? really?). What is new is that for the first time Baron Cohen, his team of writers and director Larry Charles have spent time that would have previously gone on dick jokes crafting a character to care about. There is an actual arc here where a man child gradually becomes a man, and while there is nothing in terms of profundity offered beyond the patently obvious — a thin sketching of America’s hypocrisy and apparent lack of self-awareness is all we get — for Sacha Baron Cohen it is a gigantic leap forward in both ambition and execution.
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