Sacha Baron Cohen’s tale of tyranny is tasteless, but terrific

Art & Lit Screen

 The only moment that failed to raise even a nervous titter during The Dictator was when Admiral General Aladeen of Wadiya (Sacha Baron Cohen) remembers his rape of a group of fourteen year old boys, all of whom killed themselves afterwards. “They didn’t blame me”, he says dismissively to his friend, “Nuclear” Nadal (Jason Mantzoukas). “Yes. They did,” replies the exasperated sidekick, “they mentioned you specifically in their suicide notes.” Or something along those lines. Maybe it was just a bit much. Everything else, though, drew gales of laughter, from his endless racism (“Hey, blackie!”) and incredulity towards double-amputees, to the scene of questionable genius in which his hand brushes against his true love’s while both are wrist-deep inside a pregnant woman, helping to deliver a baby.

Unlike Cohen’s masterful Borat, The Dictator eschews the mockumentary approach in favour of a conventionally plotted film. Without the real-life shock-value of Tennessee homophobes and sexist frat boys, Cohen compensates outrageously. You know you’re in uncharted territory when Aladeen plays a Wii game called “Munich Olympics” (other titles include “London Underground”) in which his character bursts into the Israeli team’s accommodation – cue loud exclamations in Yiddish – and starts gunning down the athletes.

Other gags are less risqué, such as Aladeen’s solicitation of celebrities to fly out to Wadiya to have sex with him. After each tryst he delicately places a trophy Polaroid up on his wall; lucky recipients of his herpes apparently include Arnold Schwarzenegger and Katy Perry. The real celebrity coup in The Dictator, though, sees Sir Ben Kingsley plant little kisses on Sacha Baron Cohen’s armpits by way of greeting.

About that plot. Sir Ben plays Aladeen’s scheming uncle Tamir (for Kingsley’s other schemer roles see Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time and…err…Gandhi), understandably eager to rid himself of his nephew and install a double whom he can easily manipulate. The double is, of course, played by Cohen as a brain-dead goatherd. Aladeen’s WMD programme has brought down the wrath of the United Nations on fictional Wadiya, and military intervention is exactly what Tamir fears. He wants to convert Wadiya into a democracy in order to sell its oil fields to BP, Gazprom, and a sexually depraved Chinese bureaucrat. Tamir’s motive, we learn, is simple enough: to gain enough money from these dealings to buy “the house on Lake Como next to George Clooney’s.”

On a trip with Uncle Tamir to New York to answer the summons of the world powers, the dictator is captured, shorn of his beard, and barely survives an assassination attempt. By the time Aladeen recovers, Tamir has replaced him with a double. Masquerading as “Alison Burgers” Aladeen is forced to ally himself with Zoey (Anna Faris), a liberal/vegan/activist with hairy armpits, and use her tree-hugging catering company as a means to infiltrate the hotel where Wadiya’s transition to a democracy is to take place amidst grand ceremony. The run-of-the-mill plot provides ample scope for every comedic button to be pushed, with a range varying from scatology to rare moments of satire. It’s far enough from the genius of Borat that you notice but, somewhere in The Dictator, there’ll be something up your street. And, at only 83 minutes, Cohen’s latest offering doesn’t even have time to run out of steam.

Tom Leece