One of the great social satirists of modern cinema, Sacha Baron Cohen became a cultural phenomenon with the release of Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan in 2006. At the time, Cohen had yet to achieve mainstream success, so the element of surprise was still on his side as he assumed the role of a blissfully ignorant, casually racist Kazakh TV host visiting America in the largely improvised comedy; as the targets of his jokes struggled to maintain composure, half the fun was watching them squirm while Cohen explored just how far he could take his routine. Three years later, when Cohen failed to re-create that success with Bruno, it was difficult to discern which direction his career would take next. Now that he could be recognized, would his humor still hit the mark? The answer to that question, if you can catch your breath between the rapid-fire succession of gags in The Dictator, is yes -- though only comedy fans with thick skin need apply.
A natural-born despot, General Aladeen (Cohen) takes great pride in his role as an oppressor. As the unchallenged leader of Wadiya, his talent for trash-talking Western values and ignoring international treaties has made him the most hated autocrat since Saddam Hussein. But when General Aladeen travels to New York City to address international concerns regarding the state of his nation's controversial nuclear program, his trusted right-hand man Tamir (Ben Kingsley) schemes to have the tyrant killed and replaced with a double in order to forge a lucrative alliance with big oil companies. Incredibly, General Aladeen manages to thwart his assassin and make a daring escape -- but not before losing his trademark beard. Now adrift in New York City and completely unrecognizable, the most hated leader in the world befriends Zoey (Anna Faris), a feminist/activist and the owner of a Brooklyn organic-food store, and assumes the identity of a Wadiyan dissident while plotting with his former top scientist Nadal (Jason Mantzoukas) to sabotage his double's speech and reclaim his rightful status as the true enemy of freedom.
In the past few years, memorable supporting roles in films like Tim Burton's Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street and Martin Scorsese's Hugo have proven that Cohen is much more than a one-trick pony. Yet despite his obvious talent as an actor, it was understandable that some fans would be wary of Cohen returning to the world of scripted comedy; his first such film, Ali G Indahouse (2002), was an uneven misfire that failed to translate the magic of Da Ali G Show to the big screen. Fortunately, it seems that Cohen has taken care to learn from his past mistakes, and with veteran comedy producer/director Larry Charles at the helm, The Dictator delivers Looney Tunes-style satire punctuated by Cohen's unique brand of take-no-prisoners irreverence. But just when you start to think Cohen has opted for a broader approach this time around (outrageous sight gags and Wadiyan versions of popular songs like R.E.M.'s "Everybody Hurts" fill the gaps between elaborate comedy set pieces), the final speech reveals that the entire movie has been a setup for a big sucker punch that paints Cohen as the satirical equivalent of M. Night Shyamalan. Meanwhile, a succession of playful cameos is sure to keep sharp-eyed comedy fans on their toes.
No one in The Dictator is safe from Cohen's ruthless brand of satire, and if 9/11 jokes or torture being played for laughs offend your sensibilities, this isn't the comedy for you. For everyone else, The Dictator offers sidesplitting proof that, improvised or not, Cohen's gift for cultural caricature is still intact.