'Imagine if America was a dictatorship," General Admiral Haffaz Aladeen invites a crowd of wary New Yorkers. He is on a state visit from the North African country he rules with an iron fist — and with a fleet of gold-plated Hummers — and he could not be more sincere.
"You could let 1 percent of the people have all the nation's wealth. You could help your rich friends get richer by cutting their taxes and bailing them out when they gamble and lose. You could ignore the needs of the poor for health care and education. Your media would appear free, but would secretly be controlled by one person and his family. …"
And the General Admiral — played with a winning mix of straight-faced ardor and buffoonish pomposity by the British comic star Sacha Baron Cohen — goes on, and on, drawing a stark contrast between a dictatorship and a democracy. Not!
Aladeen's speech is an inspired piece of political satire, and it is the high-water mark of The Dictator, Baron Cohen's latest total-immersion alter-ego farce. The man who brought us Borat and Bruno takes us behind the palace walls of Wadiya, an oil-rich state with a leader who absolutely denies he is using that enriched uranium for weapons, and who orders up executions the way other folks might order a pizza.
Disagree with Aladeen, and you're outta here.
Directed by Baron Cohen's longtime collaborator Larry Charles, The Dictator mixes its high and low comedy with surprising success. If Aladeen's despotic litany represents the movie at its sharpest, then a birthing scene may provide the movie's biggest are-they-really-doing-this!? moment: A woman goes into labor in the aisles of a health-food market, and Aladeen and his improbable gal pal (Anna Faris) assist the delivery and hold hands in a point-of-view shot that only an obstetrician could love.
Then again, there's plenty of gross-out toilet humor, too, and a scene when a Wadiyan goat herder brought in to double for Aladeen (a decoy to thwart an assassination plot) is entertained by a bevy of the dictator's Virgin Guards. Accustomed to his goats, he's not sure how to go about interacting with these statuesque women, but he improvises, using a champagne bucket for a milk pail.
Throughout The Dictator (dedicated, it should be noted, "in loving memory" of Kim Jong Il), Baron Cohen stays happily in character, even as the General Admiral heads for the Big Apple — to address the United Nations — and falls into a romance with Faris' militantly vegan Brooklynite, a woman he describes as a "lesbian hobbit," and whose hairy armpits he first finds appalling.
Quite the contrast to Megan Fox, one of the head of state's celebrity courtesans, whom Aladeen pays handsomely for spending a few hours in his bed. Halle Berry, Katie Perry, and Arnold Schwarzenegger are among the others, or so the candid photographs adorning a bedroom wall would suggest.
I'm not sure how The Dictator will hold up on repeated viewings. Like a lot of people, I laughed long and hard the first time through Borat and Bruno, only to feel let down, and maybe even a little bored, by the raunchy audacity, ethnic caricaturing, and knuckleheaded sight gags the second time around. But if someone manages to defy those night-vision-equipped piracy police and put Cohen's dictatorship-vs.-democracy oration up on YouTube, it could resonate all through the months leading up to the presidential election.
Contact Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at www.philly.com/onmovies.
The Dictator, Directed by Larry Charles. With Sacha Baron Cohen, Anna Faris, and Ben Kingsley. Distributed by Paramount Pictures. Running time: 1 hour, 23 mins. Parent's guide: R (sex, nudity, profanity, cartoon violence, adult themes). Playing at: Area theaters.