In a recent appearance on the “Weekend Update” segment of Saturday Night Live, Sacha Baron Cohen, in character as Admiral General Aladeen, read excerpts from reviews of The Dictator allegedly written by noted critics A.O. Scott and Roger Ebert—reviews which, it soon became apparent, may have been obtained through coercion. “The Dictator is the best movie I’ve seen in the last 10 years,” read Scott’s review, ominously printed on blood-stained paper. “There, I said it. Please, please, not my face.” Aladeen then removed two severed thumbs from his pocket, insisting that Roger Ebert had given the film “two thumbs up.”
It turns out that the kidnapping and torture was largely unnecessary. For the most part, The Dictator is an extremely funny movie. To call it the best movie of the last 10 years is, if course, an exaggeration, but not an absurd or preposterous one. Although not quite as funny as Borat and Bruno—which certainly qualify as two of the funniest movies of the last 10 years, if not necessarily “the best”—the movie still offers 85 solid minutes of non-stop hilarity.
That the movie is even funny at all should come as a bit of a surprise. A huge part of the appeal of Borat and Bruno was seeing Baron Cohen awkwardly interacting with ordinary people who assume that the Borat and Bruno characters are the real deal. But now that everyone knows what Baron Cohen looks like, that’s become impossible. (There are two segments in The Dictator in which Baron Cohen tries to go incognito in Times Square, but no one seems to take the bait). And so Baron Cohen has been forced to revert back to a more traditional, non-guerrilla form of filmmaking, a form which he had previously attempted without much luck in Ali G Indahouse, easily his worst movie to date.
But The Dictator manages to avoid most of the pitfalls that ruined the earlier film. Whereas Ali G Indahouse combined weak satire with predictable gross-out humour, The Dictator combines potent satire with outrageous, unpredictable gross-out humour. The jokey fish-out-of-water premise—a Saddam Hussein-like dictator gets a job at a left-wing New York whole foods store—allows Baron Cohen to take aim at a broad range of targets, and most of his swipes hit the mark. The scenes inside the whole foods store (which memorably features a sign declaring “Shoplifters will NOT be prosecuted”) are particularly amusing, and come very close to rivalling the scenes ridiculing left-wing activists from Life of Brian. But most of the film’s humour focuses on the main character’s anti-Semitism and misogyny, and Baron Cohen doesn’t hold back in this area. Indeed, an early scene in which Aladeen is seen playing a videogame in which he plows down Israeli athletes with a machine gun almost makes all the 9/11 jokes that follow seem safe in comparison. In the final scene, Aladeen gives a speech in which he inadvertently rehearses several Occupy Wall Street talking points—a scene which will no doubt be regarded as rapidly anti-American in some quarters.
The movie’s gross-out gags are equally outrageous, and they work surprisingly well. From the world’s weirdest birthing scene to a love-making session that involves arm-pit licking to a scene in which Aladeen defecates on pedestrians while hanging from a high wire, Baron Cohen seems to determined to cross the line as frequently as possible, and at the very least, he usually succeeds in producing some sort of visceral reaction (although it may not always be laughter). This sort of humour is distressingly popular in movies nowadays, but it has been done quite like this before.
Although it lacks the same sense of spontaneity that made Borat and Bruno so exciting, The Dictator nevertheless represents another triumph for Sacha Baron Cohen—his third in a row. Highly recommended. (At least for those who aren’t easily offended).