Sacha Baron Cohen stars in "The Dictator."
Sacha Baron Cohen stars in "The Dictator."
PHOTO: Paramount Pictures

Story highlights

Sacha Baron Cohen introduces us to one "General Admiral Aladeen," a despot

He's abducted from his hotel and only escapes assassination by the skin of his teeth

A barking chauvinist bigot, Aladeen makes Borat look like a puppy dog

(CNN) —  

That which does not kill us only makes us laugh.

That seems to be the governing principle in this outrageously offensive, but ridiculously funny, effort from agent provocateur Sacha Baron Cohen.

The “Borat” star has now exhausted the characters he introduced in “Da Ali G Show” and presumably worn out his welcome as a celebrity interviewer.

In “The Dictator,” his third and most outwardly conventional Hollywood vehicle, he introduces us to one “General Admiral Aladeen,” a North African despot who resembles Libya’s Colonel Moammar Gadhafi, but with an Osama bin Laden beard, and something of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s knack for international diplomacy. (The film is dedicated to the memory of the late Kim Jong Il.)

Summoned to the United Nations to explain his country’s mushrooming nuclear weapons program, Aladeen plans to throw down the gauntlet, but instead he’s abducted from his hotel room and only escapes assassination by the skin of his teeth. This close shave leaves him unrecognizably clean shaven, alone and anonymous on the streets of New York, supplanted by an idiot double under the control of his conniving uncle (played by Ben Kingsley). Mistaken for a political refugee by the well-meaning manager of a vegan cooperative grocery store (played by Anna Faris), Aladeen embarks on a new career in the service industry until he can get his country back.

There’s nothing very original in this scenario, except perhaps for the unthinking brutality of the hero. Baron Cohen and his regular collaborator director Larry Charles scarcely concern themselves putting the mechanics of the plot in place. As a piece of storytelling “The Dictator” is perfunctory to the point of disdain. In their previous efforts these merry pranksters have operated on the margins of documentary, improvising recklessly with the unpredictable dynamics of volatile situations and unsuspecting dupes.

Such mockery took cunning and courage, as well as brilliantly quick comic reflexes. At its best it exposed the venal hypocrisy, ignorance and prejudice lurking just beneath the surface of polite society. Perhaps sensing that they’re inherently on safer but also more sterile ground here, working with actors and from a script, they compensate with a barrage of bad taste and near-the-knuckle gags. There is something to offend just about everyone: 9/11 jokes, rape jokes, race jokes, child abuse jokes, you name it.

A barking chauvinist bigot, Aladeen makes Borat look like a puppy dog. But he’s certainly bracing company, the scourge of political correctness and a walking litmus test of our commitment to free speech. We’ve seen plenty of taboo-busting comedies over the last few years, but this one really goes for the jugular. Lesbians, the disabled, the Chinese, several Hollywood stars, Muslims and Jews all have reasons to cringe. Baron Cohen is an equal opportunities agitator; he takes on everybody at once and dares you not to laugh.

How can you not, when Aladeen attempts to impersonate a Chinese-American tourist by pressing his fingers to his eyes and pronouncing his “r”s and “l”s, apparently convinced of his acting prowess after starring in several vanity projects back home in Wadiya. The joke is more sophisticated than it first appears when you consider that it’s performed by an English Jew, caricaturing a North African Muslim.

For all its crudity and occasional flatness, “The Dictator” is a satire that takes no prisoners and valuable for that reason. In his big climactic speech, even the irredeemable Aladeen rises to the occasion with a brilliant piece of political oratory that turns the tables on everything we think we know about today’s cultural jihad.

It’s a superbly cheeky cinematic coup worthy of another great English comedian, Charlie Chaplin.