Though the idea of placing wacky made-up characters in a real-life context was carried over from Da Ali G Show—wherein Buzz Aldrin was once asked if he was upset that Michael Jackson got all the credit for inventing the moonwalk—Sacha Baron Cohen’s Borat felt like something new, an attempt to square an improvised, guerrilla style of underground comedy with reality-TV stunt shows like Jackass or Fear Factor. Unlike Ali G Indahouse, Baron Cohen’s failed attempt to bring his most famous character into an entirely fictional universe, Borat found the comic tension in placing his Kazakhstani buffoon in delicate social situations, like a rodeo where he supports the “War Of Terror” a bit too zealously.
But the ingenuity of Borat was never sustainable, partly because Baron Cohen became too famous to go incognito, but mainly because what was once wholly original quickly seemed like formula, from familiar onscreen pranks to his wearying press conferences and public appearances. Brüno was a case of diminishing returns, intermittently amusing but not nearly as bracing or funny as Borat—it didn’t help that Brüno was the most thinly conceived of all his Da Ali G Show characters—and the lead-up to Baron Cohen’s new comedy, The Dictator, made it look like he’d boxed himself into a corner. And in his desperation, he’d perhaps retreated to giving another wacky made-up character—Admiral General Aladeen, oppressive leader of the North African oil state of Wadiya—the Ali G Indahouse treatment.
Baron Cohen and director Larry Charles have indeed retreated with The Dictator, but they’ve gone back 80 years, when the Marx Brothers were given carte blanche at Paramount Pictures with a five-movie run that ended with their best movie, 1933’s Duck Soup. Baron Cohen’s new creation (and the previous ones, too) has its roots in Groucho characters like Captain Jeffrey T. Spaulding, Otis B. Driftwood, and Prof. Quincy Adams Wagstaff, and the concept of a pompous simpleton running a rogue nation has obvious parallels to Duck Soup’s Rufus T. Firefly, who leads the country of Fredonia to a needless and highly preventable war. Though Duck Soup has a comic’s contempt for authority and offers some barbs on the collective madness of nationalism, it’s less a satire than another premise for the brothers’ usual pranks and tomfoolery. As ever, they’re more inclined to celebrate anarchy than speaking truth to power.
Also hailing from Paramount Pictures, The Dictator refers more directly and pointedly to real-life political developments, but it otherwise follows the Duck Soup model of hanging all kinds of comedy—physical and verbal, lowbrow and highbrow, satirical and gross-out—on the misadventures of a brazen Rufus T. Firefly type. This gives Baron Cohen and Charles the freedom to goof hilariously on the decadence and villainy of Axis Of Evil sorts while sidewinding into Borscht Belt gags or the visual spoofery of a Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker comedy. In other words, anything goes, which is as sturdy a comic modus operandi as any, especially if most of the jokes hit.
Created from a genetic pool that includes Gaddafi, Ahmadinejad, Kim Jong-il, Saudi royalty, and Hussein’s sons at their friskiest, Admiral General Aladeen opens the movie with the modern dictator’s favorite international provocation: the development of nuclear power. Aladeen’s stated ambition to use this energy for “peaceful purposes”—he even cracks himself up with that one—doesn’t appease the international community, which calls for sanctions or worse if he doesn’t allow inspectors into the country. (Turns out to be a bluff: His insistence on “pointy” missiles has set the project back considerably.)
When a defiant Aladeen heads to the United Nations in New York to make his case, a resistance movement within Wadiya, led by his second-in-command Tamir (Ben Kingsley), sends him off course. Tamir arranges for Aladeen to be abducted, tortured, and left for dead, and replaces him with a dim-witted, sheepherding body double who makes the startling announcement that Wadiya is to become a democracy. Meanwhile, the now-beardless Aladeen gets humbled in much the same way as Eddie Murphy’s benevolent royal in Coming To America, except instead of mopping up a McDonald’s, he teams up with Zoey (Anna Faris), the hippie proprietor of a Brooklyn organic grocery. Taking advantage of her haughty obliviousness—Faris is every bit Margaret Dumont to Baron Cohen’s Groucho—Aladeen conspires to seize power back and tear up the new constitution before it’s too late.
For as much fun as Charles, Baron Cohen, and their writers have with their cartoon amalgam of modern-day monarchs, The Dictator’s true satirical agenda is reserved for the democracies that would hand a newly “free” country like Wadiya over to BP and Exxon. When Baron Cohen finally gets the opportunity to hit this theme hard, he uncorks a monologue that sharpens his sometimes-ramshackle comedy to a point. It’s here where he and Groucho part ways—Groucho was not a satirist by nature, and that’s long been Baron Cohen’s stock in trade. But elsewhere, Admiral General Aladeen and Rufus T. Firefly share the same bloodline, representing a more generalized contempt for world leaders of any stripe, whether they don a “supreme beard” or a greasepaint moustache.
The Dictator keeps the gags coming as fast as it can manage, sometimes in big gross-out setpieces like an impromptu baby delivery, but more often in the general fusillade of hit-or-miss jokes that hit at a better-than-average rate. While Aladeen certainly has a place in Baron Cohen’s gallery of human cartoons, the key point about The Dictator is that it’s a departure from his previous films and not another trip to the well. His needling instincts to shock and provoke are still present—and still merrily juvenile—but the film is both more conventional than Borat and Brüno and a more accommodating vehicle for different types of comedy. In reaching back to the past, Baron Cohen finds a viable way forward.