WASHINGTON – Sacha Baron Cohen got his start on TV’s “Da Ali G Show,” which aired on the UK’s Channel 4 in 2000, then came to HBO from 2003-2004. Here, he developed three memorable characters: the wannabe-Jamaican British b-boy Ali G, the misinformed Kazakhstani documentary filmmaker Borat, and the flamboyantly gay Australian Bruno.
All three have since had their own movies: “Ali G Indahouse” (2002), “Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan” (2006) and “Bruno” (2009).
“The Dictator” is Cohen’s first leading role that does not stem from an “Ali G Show” character. He plays General Admiral Haffaz Aladeen, the totalitarian leader of the fictional North African nation of Wadiya (probably a neighbor of Groucho Marx’s Freedonia). His top confidant (Ben Kingsley, “Gandhi”) plots with an American secret service agent (John C. Reilly, “Step Brothers”) to kill him and replace him by a body double (also Cohen) to deliver a pro-democracy speech at the United Nations. With his beard shaved and nowhere to turn, Aladeen is taken under the wing of an activist organic market owner (Anna Faris, “Scary Movie”), whose radical personality steals his heart.
Like “Borat,” this film is directed by Larry Charles. Unlike “Borat,” “The Dictator” is completely scripted, co-written by Cohen (who earned an Oscar nomination for writing “Borat”) and Charles’ fellow “Seinfeld” writers Alec Berg, David Mandel and Jeff Schaffer. Part of me missed the quasi-improvised, mockumentary gags. This spontaneity is what we’ve come to love from Cohen, both on screen — Borat pranking a family dinner table like the boys from “Jackass” — and off screen — spilling ashes all over Ryan Seacrest on this year’s Oscar red carpet.
Still, the “structured” approach has its funny moments, like an impromptu childbirth that features the most invasive camera set-up I’ve seen. Many moments from the trailer don’t make the final cut (unless I missed them), but this saves the film from the common complaint that “all the funny moments are in the trailer.” Even the trailer’s most memorable moment — Aladeen shooting his track-meet competitors — appears in the opening minutes, leaving many surprises to follow.
As I watched that scene, I was reminded of Cohen’s pop culture impact. In March, the theme from “Borat” accidentally played during the medal ceremony at the 10th Arab Shooting Championship, held in Kuwait. Then, at this summer’s opening ceremonies for the London Olympics, Australian Olympian Russell Mark claims he’ll wear a Borat-style lime green bikini — after losing a bet.
Cohen’s international appeal comes from his “culture clash” ability to articulate what many are thinking, but are too scared too say. Few comedians can so nimbly nail political satire. Subtitles highlight language barriers. Oppressive tanks loom just outside the frame. News footage shows condemnation from actual world leaders. The soundtrack re-dubs Jay-Z, R.E.M. and Marvin Gaye in Aladeen’s native language. And wall photos of Hollywood celebs recall Kim Jong Il’s secret love for American pop culture. With such anarchist commentary, “The Dictator” blends “Duck Soup” (1933) and “Coming to America” (1988), as Cohen commands us to, “Just taste the duck soup!”
The best political commentary comes during the film’s final speech, riffing on everything from Occupy Wall Street to the War in Iraq. Aladeen gives a tongue-in-cheek, pro-dictatorship speech that serves as a subversive critique of America. The speech is clearly an homage to “The Great Dictator” (1940), where Charlie Chaplin delivers a closing monologue that holds just as true today as it did during WWII.
You might call Cohen this generation’s Chaplin. His camel ride through New York City is just as lighthearted as Chaplin playing hacky sack with a globe, poking fun at Hitler for stealing his signature mustache. The difference is that Chaplin directed himself, while Cohen relies once again on Charles. Chaplin was also more recognizable, joining Mickey Mouse as the most famous silhouettes of the 20th century, so imitable that he once entered a “Charlie Chaplin lookalike contest” and finished third.
More importantly, Cohen’s rise to stardom comes during a much cruder era of comedy. Different people will be offended by different things (allusions to rape, pedophilia, torture and a severed black head), but Cohen is such an “equal opportunity” offender that he gets away with it. His own Jewish roots give him a pass for “Nintendo Wii Jihad,” and he offsets his own liberal leanings by painting Faris’ character as too “politically correct.” No demographic is safe, and no subject is off limits.
From recurring “execution” orders to fake “store sign” aliases, Cohen throws so many jokes up against the wall that, no matter how many fall flat, many are bound to stick. He’s like a prizefighter throwing countless jabs, whiffing on many, but landing a few squarely on the jaw. It’s not a knockout, but it’s an entertaining 12 rounds.
I’ve studied “best lists” long enough to know that “Borat” will be the one chosen by the listology gatekeepers to represent Cohen’s post-9/11 humor. But if that was a 4-star comedy to mark an era, “The Dictator” is still a solid effort, or as Borat would say, “A very nice.”