Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Strange bedfellows: tyranny and humor

Sacha Baron Cohen's The Dictator isn't as transgressive as his best comedy, but it's not laugh free, either.

Sacha Baron Cohen has a genius for turning inappropriate remarks and vulgar behavior into transgressive social critiques. Daring as he is dirty, Cohen first came to the attention of American audiences with Da Ali G Show, which aired on HBO. Cohen pushed Ali G -- an outlandish British hip hop journalist -- into the real world, where he conducted interviews that often left his prey foaming with outrage or shaking their heads in disbelief. Ali G was, if you can stand the contradiction, brilliantly ignorant.

Baron Cohen transferred these skills to the big screen with 2006 with Borat (inspired), a comedy that he followed with 2009’s less successful Bruno. Now comes The Dictator, a film that begins with a dedication to the late Korean dictator Kim Jong-il, a brazen bit of humor that sets the tone for a comedy that includes most of the Baron Cohen trademarks: blatantly stated bigotry, exceptional vulgarity and broadly aimed satire.

In The Dictator, the combination produces enough laughs to keep Baron Cohen fans happy, although the movie seldom seems as daring or dangerous as Baron Cohen’s bizarre mockumentaries, which brought him into contact with non-actors who weren’t in on the joke.

This time out, Baron Cohen plays Admiral General Aladeen, the cruel dictator of the fictional Middle Eastern country of Wadiya. Early on, Aladeen travels to New York City to address the United Nations. There, another Wadiyan leader (Ben Kingsley) leads an assassination attempt involving one of Aladeen’s many hapless doubles.

Not that plot matters. The point is to put this arrogant, self-absorbed tyrant into the middle of Manhattan, where -- shorn of his beard -- he can be the proverbial fish out of dictatorial waters.

Left to his own devices, Aladeen lands a job at the Free Earth Collective, an organic Brooklyn food store run by a feminist activist (Anna Farris). He also reunites with a Wadiyan nuclear scientist (Jason Mantzoukas) who escaped one of Aladeen's many execution orders, handed out by the capricious dictator as casually as others distribute business cards.

Among his many New York-based educational experiences, Aladeen learns to masturbate, an activity that gives director Larry Charles, who directed the two previous Baron Cohen movies, an opportunity to go gross -- not his first nor his last in a picture that probably contains a few too many such moments.

Oddly, the movie’s most trenchant bit of comedy comes in a speech Aladeen delivers at the end. Its target: Not the dictatorial abuses of the Sadaam Husseins and Muammar Gaddafis of the world, but conditions closer to home.

Did I think The Dictator was a great movie? No. Did I laugh enough to recommend it to Baron Cohen fans, as well as to those who arrive at the theater adequately forewarned? Yes.

A final thought: At February’s Oscar ceremonies, Baron Cohen walked the red carpet dressed as Aladeen, complete with fake beard. He proceeded to spill the ashy contents of an urn he was carrying on E! red carpet host Bryan Seacrest’s tuxedo. The ashes, said Aladeen, belonged to the late Kim Jong-il.

It was a great “oops” moment that fit Baron Cohen’s humor perfectly, soiling the usual red carpet orgy of praise and fatuous banter, and setting a standard of impropriety that The Dictator can’t quite match.

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