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Not 'Borat,' But Not Bad: Baron Cohen Tries Straight Comedy In 'The Dictator'

A poster advertises Sacha Baron Cohen's satirical film "The Dictator" in the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek. (Courtesy of Rob Cameron).
A poster advertises Sacha Baron Cohen's satirical film "The Dictator" in the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek. (Courtesy of Rob Cameron).
You’ll have a feel for what you’re getting at "The Dictator" as soon as the curtain rises on a beaming photo of the late North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il in whose "loving memory," we are told, the film was produced.

Little about Sacha Baron Cohen’s new comedy is subtle, and its frequently slapstick brand of humor represents a shift for Baron Cohen, whose prior films capitalized on an awkward and aggressive tension with their audiences.

"Borat" got viewers to laugh uncomfortably when it hinted that the joke was on them; “The Dictator” sticks to a far more traditional Hollywood formula in both its scripted and improvised gags.

But within the framework it sets for itself, "The Dictator" succeeds in cementing Baron Cohen’s reputation as a comedian uniquely able to mine the extreme limits of good taste for their risque humor value.

Real-Life Autocrats Lampooned

His character in "The Dictator," Admiral General Aladeen from the fictional North African state of Wadiya, is a wild pastiche caricature of several well-known international autocrats.

WATCH: Official trailer for Sacha Baron Cohen's "The Dictator"

Like the late Colonel Muammar Qaddafi of Libya, Aladeen gets around with a bodyguard force uniformly composed of young, buxom women.

Like the late Saddam Hussein of Iraq (see here at about 5:20), Aladeen encourages his intimates and supplicants to kiss his armpits.

And like the late Saparmurat Niyazov of Turkmenistan, also known as “Turkmenbashi,” who renamed months and days of the week after himself and his family members, Aladeen replaces many important Wadiyan words, such as "positive" and "negative," with his own name.

"Do you want the aladeen news or the aladeen news first?" a doctor asks his stricken patient. "You’re HIV-aladeen."

Wadiya’s "beloved oppressor" is feverishly focused on obtaining a nuclear weapon as a means of upping his global street cred.

"Everyone has one," he tells an aide, "even Mahmud Ahmadinejad and he looks like a snitch from 'Miami Vice.'"

Equal-Opportunity Offensiveness

In his spare time, the tyrant hones his acute anti-Semitism and gross chauvinism.

It all putts along smoothly for Aladeen -- bedding Hollywood celebrities, ordering whimsical summary executions, and dodging the occasional assassination attempt -- until he's forced to come before the UN in New York.

There, he falls victim to a sinister plot (led by Ben Kingsley, playing a Hamid Karzai look-alike) to turn Wadiya into a democracy and sell its oil interests to Western, Russian, and Chinese firms.

Assigned to be tortured and killed -- there’s a brief back-and-forth between actors Baron Cohen and John C. Reilly on the merits of various torture instruments -- Aladeen manages to escape captivity and find shelter with Zoey (Anna Faris), an ecologically-minded human rights activist who owns an organic grocery in Brooklyn.

Baron Cohen’s louche offensiveness in "The Dictator" is of the equal-opportunity variety: members of nearly every race, religion, sexual orientation, and body-hair configuration will find much to get upset about.

And the film’s satirical climax, delivered in a bizarre homage to Charlie Chaplin's "The Great Dictator," packs a bite as Baron Cohen offers his own critique of American democracy.

It’s certainly no "Borat," but "The Dictator" delivers a raucous string of laughs that could put a self-aware smile on the face of even the sternest megalomaniac.

-- Charles Dameron

About This Blog

Written by RFE/RL editors and correspondents, Transmission serves up news, comment, and the odd silly dictator story. While our primary concern is with foreign policy, Transmission is also a place for the ideas -- some serious, some irreverent -- that bubble up from our bureaus. The name recognizes RFE/RL's role as a surrogate broadcaster to places without free media. You can write us at

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