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Film review: 'The Dictator' is humorous, but stretches bad taste

May 18, 2012|By Andy Klein
  • Sacha Baron Cohen (left) and Ben Kingsley in 'The Dictator.'
Sacha Baron Cohen (left) and Ben Kingsley in 'The… (Paramount Pictures )

Sacha Baron Cohen's central shtick — semi-documentary episodes in which he entraps real people — has always, by its nature, had a built-in self-destruct mechanism. The more famous he becomes, the less likely that anyone will fall for his masquerades as Ali G, Borat and Bruno. With “The Dictator,” he finally abandons his “Candid Camera”-like stunts for a fully written script — perhaps with some improvisation — acted by professionals. In other words: No innocent bystanders were humiliated in the production of this motion picture.

It's not the first time he's worked this way: “Ali G Indahouse,” his hilarious bigscreen debut — never released here theatrically — was fully scripted with almost no real-world footage.

His latest persona — which he is maintaining throughout his promotional appearances — is ever-bearded Admiral General Haffaz Aladeen, Supreme Leader, Chief Ophthalmologist, Invincible, All Triumphant, Beloved Oppressor of the People of Wadiya, and excellent swimmer, including butterfly. This genially cruel dictator and all-around halfwit arrives in New York to address the U.N., but his scheming second-in-command (Ben Kingsley) has hired a zealous security expert (John C. Reilly) to kill him and replace him with an even stupider lookalike (Baron Cohen again).

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Aladeen escapes, but finds himself clueless, beardless, and adrift in New York. He locates “Little Wadiya,” a neighborhood filled with angry anti-him refugees. Among them is a former minion (Jason Mantzoukas), who he bribes to help him. They plan to expose the impostor so Aladeen can resume his rightful position; meanwhile, our hero is hired by the hopelessly naive Zoe (Anna Faris) to work in her health-food store.

The plot is basically a dark-hearted update of Eddie Murphy's “Coming to America.” Aladeen is hardly the first comic protagonist who, in the real world, would be an utterly loathsome jerk and an insufferable narcissist. There have been plenty of lovable comic killers. But he may be the first to be rabidly anti-Semitic; and his level of sexism certainly comes close to setting a new record. (“What are you having?” he asks a pregnant woman. “A boy? Or an abortion?”)

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