MANILA, Philippines – There’s a turning point monologue in The Dictator, where a suicidal Aladeen is talked down off the literal ledge by his former nuclear weapons expert by, of all things, extolling the virtues of former fascists.
To which the depressed despot — played to hilarious caricature perfection by Sacha Baron Cohen — replies in that grand manner of half-insanity and half-illumination of all great villains: “I will become the greatest dictator of all, the envy of madmen everywhere! From the mountaintops of North Korea to the jungles of Zimbabwe, let every child laborer and sweatshop factory worker sing `oppressed at last, oppressed at last, thank god oppressed at last!’”
Offensive, hilarious and an extremely guilty pleasure crafted for adult consumption, really, this is another Baron Cohen gem.
It’s also another great team up with director Larry Charles, who also did the mockumentaries Borat and Bruno. I’d venture to say this one’s less offensive that Borat, though. See, even as The Dictator delightfully spoofs despotic states head on, it is also obliquely a commentary on how democracy can be the most nefarious dictatorship of all; specifically the US brand of “democracy.”
The first 10 to 15 minutes are devoted to establishing how the fictional Republic of Wadiya in North Africa is ruled by the eccentric, oppressive and lecherous Admiral General Hafez Aladeen. Known as Supreme Leader to his subjects and as “The Mad Dog” to the rest of the world, he’s someone who’s gone far into the deep end with absolute power.
He routinely changes words in the local language to Aladeen, surrounds himself with female virgin bodyguards, wins track and field races by shooting the other athletes, has people and animals killed for nothing more than getting the hidden treat off a cereal box and regularly brings over Hollywood celebrities to service him in bed (oh, to be a despot for a night with Megan Fox!).
He’s an amalgam of everything from Kim Jong Il to any of the Middle Eastern strongmen you can care pick — though I do prefer Saddam for the affectation with interesting facial hair. Also, Aladeen’s staunchly anti-Semitic, to which end he’s trying to wipe Israel off the map by building and developing nuclear weapons.
That last one in itself is a great bit of meta-comedy. Baron Cohen, you see, is a Cambridge-educated man born of a Jewish mother who was raised in Israeli, plus he’s performed in plays in the Habonim Dror Jewish theatre in secondary school. So, is it less scathing if you rag on your own race?
Aided and abetted by his loyal counsellor Tamir (played by Sir Ben Kingsley in an amazing casting feat), Aladeen avoids assassination attempts by employing body doubles. A recently successful one has left whim with one less, and so Tamir acquires a new one for him.
Just in time, since Aladeen has been summoned to New York for a UN assembly to address concerns about his country’s nuclear weapons program. Shortly after arriving in America, though, things quickly go awry.
Aladeen is kidnapped by the supposed local bodyguard Clayton (John C. Reilly) and kept for torture, shaving off Aladeen’s beard and metaphorically emasculating him in the process. After Aladeen escapes, he realizes that it was Tamir behind the scheme all along, and that his former council man has replaced him with the dumb decoy named Efawadh.
Apparently, Tamir intends to let Efawadh play the Supreme Leader and make him sign a document in front of the UN to democratize Wadiya, thereby opening the country’s rich oil fields to foreign corporations.
After meeting Zoey (Anna Faris) at the anti-Aladeen demo and discovering that everyone he supposedly killed is merely in exile in the NY district of Little Wadiya, the former despot, now urecognizable without his beard, sets his sight to restoring himself onto Wadiya’s seat of power and killing the treacherous Tamir.
As a comedy that spoofs dictators, this one references everything from Charlie Chaplin’s “The Great Dictator,” the Richard Dreyfus vehicle “Moon Over Parador,” and, more recently, the excellent Dominic Copper starrer “The Devil’s Double” to great, clever effect. In fact, the switcheroo with the dumb double seems ripped right out of the last one’s script, except it’s been done with calculated flair.
The biggest supporting character is “Nuclear” Nadal (Jason Mantzoukas), who becomes instrumental for the Supreme Leader’s mission back to power. Nadal’s motives and desires are entirely simple; he wants nothing more than to continue building his nuclear bombs, whether they’re pointy or rounded at the end — a sticking issue, for which he was sentenced by Aladeen to die.
Not only do Nadal and Aladeen’s duo make for great comedy that’s essentially fish out of water, their back and forth routine display caustic chemistry. Exhibit A, the villainous bridge monologue.
Anna Faris, a great comedian in her own right, stands out as the romantic interest; her Zoey is a fair-trading, politically correct, eco-friendly, all organic, grocer who regularly spews activist call to arms at street demonstrations. She’s the representative of every neu-hippie pacifist advocate, complete with armpit hair.
One of my favorite scenes plays out at Zoey’s grocery, after Aladeen organizes the mish mash of misfits and political refugees that’s the staff into a singular machine of efficiency through the wonders of fascistic rule. At the end, there’s a huge portrait of Zoey standing blue-eyed and proud ala Che Guevara on the grocery wall.
There are also great cameo roles by Saturday Nite Live alums like Kathryn Hahn and Seth Morris, and notably Fred Armisen (a waiter in the anti-Aladeen restaurant of New York’s Little Wadiya), and Bobby Lee (as Lao, the celebrity-screwing Chinese ambassador).
Though the weekend box office showing of this movie here didn’t gross as much as in other countries (only a paltry US$532,889), it stands up there among the tall trees of Baron Cohen’s filmography.
The Dictator is a total laugh fest that’s worth picking up on DVD if you love your comedies black, brainy and fully bearded. – Rappler.com
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