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Cohen rules in funny ‘Dictator’

5/24/2012 - West Side Leader
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By Craig Marks

Sacha Baron Cohen is Haffaz Aladeen in “The Dictator.”
Photo courtesy of Paramount Pictures
Sacha Baron Cohen, in his very funny, often tasteless “The Dictator,” gives us the tyrannical leader Haffaz Aladeen of the fictional North African country of Wadiya. Aladeen really loves his work, despite the inherent lack of job security that comes with being everybody’s prime assassination target. Among the perks: getting to replace random words in the dictionary with your name and winning foot races by shooting your opponents.

“The Dictator,” directed by Larry Charles, had me laughing throughout, more than any recent movie comedy I’ve seen. (For laughs per minute, the TV show “30 Rock” wears the crown.) Cohen and his co-writers have packed the 85-minute movie with clever lines and crazy situations, and they’ve come up with a plot that allows us to eventually view Aladeen in a sympathetic light. He’s the C. Montgomery Burns of despotic world leaders — beneath all those layers of villainy is a halfway decent person, one who would still cause great turmoil but would feel a tad guilty about it.

Aladeen lives the good life. All his needs are met, including his more primal ones. (Polaroid photos document his conquests.) Even his desire that Wadiya possess a nuclear missile seems to be coming to fruition, though his demand that the top of the missile be pointy has caused friction between himself and his top scientist, Nadal (Jason Mantzoukas).

All is not well, either, between Aladeen and his second in command, Tamir (Ben Kingsley). Tamir is plotting a coup, and while he seems to be more levelheaded than Aladeen (who wouldn’t be?), he may not have the best interests of his country at heart. Tamir’s plot succeeds, somewhat, leaving Aladeen, minus his beard, on his own in Brooklyn, N.Y.

Aladeen has the good fortune to meet Zoey (Anna Faris), who runs a health food co-op. She mistakes Aladeen for a Wadiyan activist and gives him work at the store, where his job skills from his previous career prove to be surprisingly adaptable. Faris is just right as a character whose sincerity is only matched by her obliviousness to Aladeen’s true nature.

Aladeen is not as stupid as Borat, Cohen’s most famous character, though they share a complete lack of social graces. Aladeen has well-formed opinions. They’re just, well, wrong and offensive to an amazing degree. He does, however, make some points about modern governments that may not be completely off base.

Like “Bananas,” an early Woody Allen comedy that also revolved around a loony bearded world leader, “The Dictator” has an anarchic spirit that pays off big when the jokes work. Not all the material does — and the most R-rated material is definitely hit-and-miss — but there’s enough funny stuff to put Wadiya on the map.

The movie, currently in theaters, is rated R for strong crude and sexual content, brief male nudity, language and some violent images.

***-1/2 (out of four)

Craig Marks is a cartoonist and editorial, sports and entertainment writer for the West Side Leader.

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