Dictator rules with revelry
Directed: Larry Charles
Is laughing at tyrants the best way to stand up to them? Sacha Baron Cohen seems to think so.
His latest character, Admiral General Aladeen, a dictator from fictional North African country the Republic of Wadiya, might possess a comely harem, tin-pot nuclear arms programme and an unlimited supply of oil, but he's not much different from Cohen's previous creations.
From wannabe hoodlum Ali G to intrepid Kazakhstan reporter Borat to flamboyant Austrian fashion columnist Bruno, all of them are essentially innocents.
This is the third and most conventional collaboration between Cohen and director Larry Charles. They've dropped the quasi-documentary approach of Borat and Bruno, where Cohen's protagonist interacted with a host of oblivious and confused celebrities and everyday folk, exposing their unwitting prejudices.
It means The Dictator lacks its predecessors' live-wire energy, even if it's just as relentlessly crude and silly.
The plot is similarly threadbare. Aladeen is due to appear before the United Nations, but a would-be usurper in the Wadiya government (Ben Kingsley) arranges an assassination attempt, with a dim-witted double (also Cohen) replacing the dictator, and the temporarily deposed Aladeen having his trade mark beard shaved off.
Presumed dead, he's protected by the feminist owner of an organic food shop (Anna Faris). So Aladeen is lost in New York, and must find a way to foil his usurper before it's too late.
The Dictator touches on subjects as hefty as the West's collaboration with tyrants, nuclear warfare, modern feminism and the glibness of international news coverage, but it's more amused by masturbation gags and daft costumes.
Kingsley, in particular, gets comic mileage out of his poker-faced pronouncements and silly hat. Faris cements her position as Hollywood's most underrated comic actress: she feeds Cohen's punchlines perfectly.
Meanwhile, Cohen's performance is as immersive as ever: his Aladeen is a mix of many notable tyrants, from Gaddafi to Sadam Hussein, but he has a childlike quality to him.
Yet very little feels at stake. Aladeen's speech encouraging the American ruling class to embrace tyranny, is funny and topical, but lacks heft.
Cohen and Charles operating within a straitjacket might be more exciting than any of their contemporaries operating on a tightrope, but this is one for the converts. Praise be Aladeen!