'The Dictator': Baron Cohen Still Rules
Glenn Kenny, Special to MSN Movies
"Sacha Baron Cohen Gives Up" could be the alternate title for this somewhat slight but commendably brisk new comedy. His most popular self-determined movie comedies, 2006's "Borat" and 2009's "Bruno," had the chameleonic, vastly gifted performer, who's also a sharp satirist, donning outrageous character garb and traits and perpetuating alternately scripted and documentary-style acts of guerrilla comedy on unsuspecting real people, the better to make some plangent points. Now the inevitable has happened: Baron Cohen himself is too famous to really pull off putting his characters into the "real world" (as he inadvertently (or maybe not) demonstrated with his flop appearance at this year's Oscars, playing his character from this movie). And so "The Dictator" has him pulling off various outrageous antics in the movie world, and it's all the more focused and consistently funny for that.
Baron Cohen plays a dim, nasty Middle East strongman named Aladeen, whose vast wealth (plundered from the people of his fictional country, of course) allows him to bed down American starlets (Megan Fox makes a very good-sport cameo), pursue a nuclear program (the primary target of Baron Cohen's early jousts would seem to be Iran's goofy head of state, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad) and drive around in a motorcade of solid-gold Humvees. Soon he's advised by second-in-command (Ben Kingsley) to address the U.N. Once in the States, treachery rears its head, and Aladeen is presumed dead while an even more cretinous double (also Baron Cohen, duh) takes his place. Before Aladeen is waylaid and replaced, he finds plenty in our beloved country to complain about. Ensconced in a luxury hotel, he bitches, "Twenty dollars a day for Internet? What the f---? And they say I'm an international criminal!"
Interestingly, the people behind this scheme to have a dummy Aladeen declare "democracy" have even more nefarious aims in mind for their country than Aladeen once did. This weird gloss on the setup of Chaplin's ancient political parable "The Great Dictator" soon has the rude, crude but powerless Aladeen joining forces with a radical caterer (Anna Faris) and a nuke scientist he'd thought he'd had executed (Jason Mantzoukas).
The deglammed Faris is a target for a lot of Aladeen's incredibly crass and crude putdowns. Indeed, the volume of sophomoric humor here is pretty staggering, particularly considering the picture comes in at barely 90 minutes. But here Baron Cohen balances the stupid, outrageous, over-the-top stuff with almost, ahem, radically provocative observations and pronouncements, and tops the whole thing off with a speech that is a grandstand play in the same mode as the one that ended the aforementioned "Great Dictator," only quite a bit funnier and more unsettling.
A gaggle of great performers keeps things extra-engaging throughout; bathroom humor is always better in the capable hands of Sir Ben, to be sure, and John C. Reilly, Fred Armisen and a host of other luminaries bring their best bits. And while Faris' makeover isn't likely to excite fans of her in "The House Bunny" ("You call those breasts? I thought you were a boy!" Aladeen indignantly exclaims to her during a scooter ride when she asks him to take his hands off the mammaries), her work here is as good as any she's done in a while. We command you to see it!
Glenn Kenny is chief film critic for MSN Movies. He was the chief film critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various publications and websites, and blogs at http://somecamerunning.typepad.com. He lives in Brooklyn.