'The Dictator' Rules With A Satirist's Fist

May 16, 2012
Originally published on May 16, 2012 11:30 am

Many fans will be disappointed that Sacha Baron Cohen's The Dictator is a more or less conventional comedy and not an ambush-interview mockumentary in the style of Borat and Bruno. But that guerrilla-clown shtick would be tough to sustain: Why not let him try something else? The good news is that The Dictator is loose and slap-happy and full of sharp political barbs and has funny actors moving in and out — and at a lickety-split 83 minutes, it doesn't wear out its welcome.

Baron Cohen plays Haffaz Aladeen, the authoritarian ruler of the fictional African nation of Wadiya, a cross between Gadhafi and Kim Jong Il. This raging egomaniac with his ridiculous fur-ball beard orders his surname to be used in place of such common words as "Yes" and "No," which means you can't tell what anyone means when they answer "Aladeen" — and if you complain about that or anything else, he'll have his guards haul you off to be beheaded.

Aladeen controls a vast oil supply and is building nuclear warheads, which he tells the world will be used for "peaceful purposes" — but has the giggles before getting the words out. He hates Israel. For fun, he watches tapes of the '72 Munich Olympics massacre.

Baron Cohen loves portraying anti-Semites as imbeciles. The title links the film to Chaplin's Hitler satire The Great Dictator. But my guess is that there's also a process at work here that psychiatrists call identifying with the aggressor: You assume the role of people that you fear.

Baron Cohen's identification with Aladeen is so strong that you end up rooting — yes, rooting — for the dictator, because this idiot is more likable than his chief aide, Tamir, played by a dour Ben Kingsley. Tamir arranges to have Aladeen murdered en route to a U.N. speech and make Wadiya a democracy, not because he gives a hoot about the people, but because it would open up the country to U.S. oil companies and make him insanely wealthy.

The kidnapped Aladeen proves wonderfully resourceful. He gets the upper hand on his torturer by shaming the man for his outdated instruments and reminding him that without a splash guard, he'll wreck his suit with all the blood. After escaping, the now-beardless dictator takes refuge in a collectively run Manhattan health-food store overseen by Zoey, a human-rights activist played by the utterly delightful Anna Faris.

The Dictator is the kind of anti-fascist movie that has you cheering when Aladeen takes a job in that lefty store and wins over its staff by using brutal, authoritarian techniques on the city health inspector. He and Zoey are an unlikely couple, but when she says, "The police here are such racists," and he says, "Yeah, and not in a good way," they have a real rapport.

The Dictator doesn't approach the greatest of all American anti-war farces, the Marx Brothers' Duck Soup, but Baron Cohen and director Larry Charles are certainly in the arena. In a climactic speech, Aladeen extols the benefits of a dictatorship over a democracy, which gives leaders, he says, power to declare war unilaterally, violate civil liberties, and structure the economy so the rich get richer and the poor stay poor. The speech is a triumph of the satirist's art. I wish we had more American movies like this — entertainments that mix low farce and high political satire, reminding us that extreme silliness does not preclude extreme seriousness. The Dictator rules!

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Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

He created Ali G, Borat and Bruno, and now in "The Dictator," Sacha Baron Cohen has a new character to add to his repertoire: the capricious ruler of an oil-rich country who travels to the U.N. to assert his right to have nuclear warheads. The film is directed by Larry Charles, and features Anna Faris and Ben Kingsley. Film critic David Edelstein has this review.

DAVID EDELSTEIN, BYLINE: Many fans will be disappointed that Sacha Baron Cohen's "The Dictator" is a more or less conventional comedy, and not an ambush-interview mockumentary in the style of "Borat" and "Bruno." But that guerrilla-clown shtick would be tough to sustain. Why not let him try something else?

The good news is that "The Dictator" is loose and slap-happy and full of sharp political barbs, and has funny actors moving in and out. And at a lickety-split 83 minutes, it doesn't wear out its welcome. Baron Cohen plays Haffaz Aladeen, the authoritarian ruler of the fictional African nation of Wadiya, in a cross between Gadhafi and Kim Jong Il.

This raging egomaniac with his ridiculous fur-ball beard orders his surname to be used in place of such common words as yes and no, which means you can't tell what anyone means when they answer Aladeen. And if you complain about that or anything else, he'll have his guards haul you off to be beheaded.

Aladeen controls a vast oil supply and is building nuclear warheads, which he tells the world will be used for, quote, "peaceful purposes," but has the giggles before getting the words out. He hates Israel. For fun, he watches tapes of the '72 Munich Olympics massacre.

Baron Cohen loves portraying anti-Semites as imbeciles. The title links the film to Chaplin's Hitler satire "The Great Dictator." But my guess is that there's also a process at work that shrinks call identifying with the aggressor: You assume the role of people that you fear.

Baron Cohen's identification with Aladeen is so strong that you end up rooting - yes, rooting - for the dictator, because this idiot is more likable than his chief aide, Tamir, played by a dour Ben Kingsley. Tamir arranges to have Aladeen murdered en route to a U.N. speech and make Wadiya a democracy - not because he gives a hoot about the people, but because it would open up the country to U.S. oil companies and make him insanely wealthy.

The kidnapped Aladeen, though, proves wonderfully resourceful. He gets the upper hand on his torturer by shaming the man for his outdated instruments and reminding him that without a splash guard, he'll wreck his suit with all the blood. After escaping, the now-beardless dictator takes refuge in a collectively run Manhattan health-food store overseen by Zoey, a human-rights activist played by the utterly delightful Anna Faris.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM "THE DICTATOR")

ANNA FARIS: (As Zoey) Anyway, let me give you the grand tour. Up on the roof, we've got this amazing organic garden and...

SACHA BARON COHEN: (As Aladeen) Boring. Do you sell any assault rifles?

FARIS: (As Zoey) Oh, wait. I got it. Humor, right? I took a feminist clown workshop once. Help, help. I'm trapped under a glass ceiling.

BARON COHEN: (As Aladeen) What the...

FARIS: (As Zoey) I wasn't the best student. But...

BARON COHEN: (As Aladeen) You seem educated.

FARIS: (As Zoey) Yes. I went to Amherst.

BARON COHEN: (As Aladeen) I love it when women go to school. It's like seeing a monkey on roller skates. It means nothing to them, but it's so adorable for us.

EDELSTEIN: Yes, the feminist satire is obvious, but Faris accompanies the glass ceiling line with a mime-trapped-in-a-box move that had me on the floor. "The Dictator" is the kind of anti-fascist movie that has you cheering when Aladeen takes a job in that lefty store and wins over its staff by using brutal authoritarian techniques on the city health inspector.

He and Zoey are an unlikely couple, but when she says the police here are such racists, and he says, yeah, and not in a good way, they have a real rapport. "The Dictator" doesn't approach the greatest of all American anti-war farces, the Marx Brothers' "Duck Soup," but Baron Cohen and director Larry Charles are certainly in the arena.

In a climactic speech, Aladeen extols the benefits of a dictatorship over a democracy, which gives leaders, he says, power to declare war unilaterally, violate civil liberties, and structure the economy so the rich get richer and the poor stay poor. The speech is a triumph of the satirist's art. I wish we had more American movies like this, that mix low farce and high political satire, that remind us that extreme silliness does not preclude extreme seriousness. "The Dictator" rules.

GROSS: David Edelstein is film critic for New York magazine. You can download podcasts of our show on our website, freshair.npr.org, and you can follow us on Twitter @nprfreshair and on Tumblr at nprfreshair.tumblr.com. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.