The most immediate criticism of The Dictator is also its biggest strength: It is extremely offensive.
From the Saudis to the Afghanis, from rednecks to vegans, from lesbians to cads, from New York City tourists to New York City cops, from Jews to Asians, from the ruling class to the working class, from Katy Perry to Edward Norton, no demographic is too sacred or too distant for the latest iteration of stereotype exploitation by actor and writer Sacha Baron Cohen. After a failed assassination attempt, the deposed dictator Aladeen (Cohen) of the oil-rich North African nation Wadiya takes shelter with Zoey, a radical and friendly Brooklyn grocery store owner played with charm by Anna Faris. Soon, Aladeen is firing off a series of jokes about the political refugees who work for her—a woman with no hands becomes his "Captain Hook," and so forth. Zoey exclaims that she finds his epithets offensive: "Good," he curtly answers.
And so it is: Even more than Borat or Brüno, Cohen's latest demands that you take offense, even as you (try not to?) laugh.
That comic imperative allows for a series of humorously crossed cultural wires. At one point, two New York sightseers mistake Aladeen and the former head of his nuclear arms program for terrorists plotting a 9/11 sequel and have them arrested. (They are actually talking about Osama bin Laden's putrid bowels and a crashed Porsche 911.) Aladeen escapes the snares of a torture-first, assassination-second attempt by insulting the weapons of his captor, played by the film's best bit actor, John C. Reilly. Obvious jokes are taken to the edges of extreme. Aladeen's mother, for instance, is suffocated as soon as the young prince is born, while an Asian billionaire with big oil prospects dreams of spending his money on a majestic evening with George Clooney, who he lauds as an old-fashioned movie star. These cheap punch lines work in tandem because they get beneath different parts of the skin in quick succession.
Indeed, The Dictator succeeds largely by creating infinite loops of absurdity, where every incident offers another chance for most everyone to look ridiculous. The ultra-inclusive egalitarianism of Faris' Zoey, for instance, allows for her to be easily duped and impressed and, ultimately, driven both by the profit margin of her organic-everything boutique and wooed by Aladeen's oh-so-feigned change of heart. The same holds for Cohen's dictator, whose own trusted employees and allies repeatedly undermine his authority by allowing him to believe in his own power. Whatever a character holds precious here—the ability to torture someone, the ability to have someone executed, the ability to believe oneself morally superior—eventually leads to his or her own humorous downfall.
And that is the hopeful lesson of The Dictator, a film that smartly plays dumb just long enough to poke its Western watchers very deeply in the ribs. Until Aladeen arrives in New York, he has simply lived in the only way he could ever conceive; New York offers the realization not only that he's ridiculous, but, hey, maybe we all are, too.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Straight outta North Africa."