Baron Cohen’s ‘Dictator’ Kills With Black Humor: Review

Sacha Baron Cohen and Ben Kingsley in "The Dictator." Baron Cohen plays Admiral General Aladeen, a Qaddafi-like North African dictator. Source: Paramount Pictures via Bloomberg

“The Dictator” makes jokes about 9/11, torture, amputees, female body hair and several ethnic groups. Extended sequences involve masturbation and (more graphically than you can imagine) childbirth.

It’s beyond tasteless and would be indefensible if it weren’t so disgustingly, chokingly funny.

Sacha Baron Cohen plays Admiral General Aladeen, a Qaddafi- like North African dictator who comes to New York to address the U.N., gets abducted by a would-be assassin and somehow winds up working at a Brooklyn food co-op.

My guess is that the movie won’t gain much traction in Arabic-speaking countries. But I found the Arab caricatures less offensive -- because the idiocy is intentional -- than they typically are in movies with Arab characters (usually terrorists), like the rotten “Salmon Fishing in the Yemen.”

Though both the title and the subject recall “The Great Dictator,” the 1940 comedy in which Charles Chaplin tried (and failed) to make Hitler funny, its brainless anarchy is closer to a much wilder classic about a foreign power: the Marx Brothers’ 1933 “Duck Soup,” in which Groucho’s Rufus T. Firefly led the nation of Freedonia.

Political Acid

“The Dictator” doesn’t quite make it to brainless. Aladeen’s late speech praising dictatorship -- because, for example, under it one percent of the population can amass practically all of a nation’s wealth -- manages to pour on political acid without corking the lunacy.

The movie is free from the sentimental goo that clots most big-budget comedies. It’s got the usual love story (the boyish girl with the unshaved pits is Anna Faris), but at no point does it sober up and ask you to care -- which is a huge relief.

Still, it’s much gentler than Baron Cohen’s earlier vehicles, “Borat” and “Bruno” (Larry Charles directed all three), where the humor is about the humiliation of unsuspecting patsies. The butt of the jokes in “The Dictator” is mainly the dictator.

The comedy is largely verbal (though there’s a pretty great ongoing sight gag involving a severed head). An angry New Yorker wails, “The police here are such fascists!” and the tyrant Aladeen agrees: “Yeah -- and not in a good way!”

Giddy State

Naked on the page like that, the line doesn’t crack me up the way it did in the theater. But then not all the jokes in “Duck Soup” are brilliant, either. The genius of that movie is the giddy state it puts you in, so that at a certain point you can’t stop laughing. Once I started, “The Dictator” had me, and a couple of times I was helpless.

So was everyone around me. I laughed so hard I even stopped wanting to kill the man behind me who kept shouting, “Dang, that’s funny!”

“The Dictator,” from Paramount, is playing across the U.S. Rating: ***1/2

What the Stars Mean:

**** Excellent
*** Good
** Average
* Poor
(No stars) Worthless

(Craig Seligman is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Opinions expressed are his own.)

Muse highlights include Ryan Sutton on restaurants and Jorg von Uthmann on Paris arts.

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