When I saw the first ads for The Dictator, I knew that there would be absolutely no middle ground, that it would be either a work of genius or one of the most offensive movies ever made. I now know what side of the divide I stand on. Where you stand, well, that will depend not only on your sense of humor but also on how you personally interpret the state of the world we live in. To say that this movie isn’t for everyone would be a massive understatement. But even then, there’s no denying its ability to grab your attention and keep it for every one of its eighty-three minutes. In their third collaboration together, co-writer/star Sacha Baron Cohen and director Larry Charles have crafted a searing political and social satire that’s simultaneously hilarious and shockingly audacious. To give you an idea of what I mean, consider the fact that the film is dedicated to the memory of Kim Jong-il.
There’s an unbelievably fine line between parody and cruelty, and somehow, Cohen and Charles have consistently found the right balance. They get away with it, I believe, because there’s a method to their madness; rather than just push people’s buttons for the sake of eliciting a visceral reaction, they’re actually trying to send a timely message. Beneath the jaw-droppingly crude verbal and physical gags, The Dictator is a rather intelligent examination of political corruption and the failings of fundamentalist human behavior. The single best scene in the entire film is when Cohen delivers a speech outlining the ways in which America would be better if it were a dictatorship rather than a democracy. The list he rattles off is funny not because it’s ridiculous, but because it’s sadly true. If you ever needed proof that comedy stems from tragedy, look no further than this film.
It tells the story of Admiral General Aladeen (Cohen), the ruler of the fictional North African country of Wadiya. Tyrannical, self absorbed, racist, sexist, anti-Semitic, and fiercely opposed to Westernized culture, his ultimate goal is to develop the world’s greatest nuclear weapons and turn his country into a feared superpower. He travels to New York with the intention of addressing the United Nations, as their Security Council has threatened to intervene militarily. Travelling with him are his uncle Tamir (Ben Kingsley) and an easily manipulated body double (also played by Cohen), who’s essentially mentally challenged. Careful observers will have already noticed the use of satire, as this scenario is not too far removed from the true story of Uday Hussein and Latif Yahia, the man who was forced into becoming Hussein’s body double.
Jealous that he wasn’t given the throne despite being next in line, the treacherous Tamir plots to have the slow-witted decoy speak on Aladeen’s behalf at the United Nations. The plan is to have him sign a new constitution for Wadiya, one that will transform it into a democracy. Once this happens, Tamir will be free open his country’s abundant oil reserves to greedy international corporations. He gets Aladeen out of the way by having him kidnapped by an undercover security guard (John C. Reilly), who tortures Aladeen simply by shaving off his beard. Aladeen is able to escape, although he’s now lost in the urban jungle of New York City. When he’s not recognized and ultimately accosted at a U.N. protest rally, he’s rescued by a young woman who mistakes him for an ordinary man opposed to Aladeen’s regime. This would be Zoey (Anna Faris), a radical left-wing feminist who owns and operates an organic market staffed by political refugees.
Adopting the alias Alison Burgers, Aladeen and Zoey inexplicably begin the process of falling in love. As this is being established, Aladeen reunites with his former ally, Nadal (Jason Mantzoukas), who was his personal nuclear scientist back in Wadiya before being sentenced to death for insubordination. As it turns out, none of the people on Aladeen’s execution list were actually executed; they were simply shipped off to New York, where settled into a section called Little Wadiya and opened an anti-Aladeen restaurant. The two conspire to get Aladeen back into the United Nations and stop the democratization process from happening.
There are moments in this film that will have you shaking your head in stunned disbelief, including a Wii game in which infidels are beheaded, several scenes featuring the severed head of a revered civil rights leader, and a sudden birthing scene that, to put it mildly, pushes the envelope. In the midst of such outrageousness, isn’t it strange that the only thing about The Dictator that wasn’t especially successful was the love story between Aladeen and Zoey? There are aspects of Aladeen’s personal life that are indeed funny, such as a wall covered with Polaroids of his sexual liaisons with various celebrities. But somehow, Aladeen’s secret desire to cuddle someone and finding a kindred spirit in Zoey came off as surprisingly conventional. This movie is at its best when it stays firmly within the realm of political satire. And just wait until you hear all the English-language pop songs redubbed with Middle Eastern lyrics.
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