updated 05/15/2012 AT 1:40 PM ET
•originally published 05/16/2012 AT 1:45 PM ET
There’s nothing like low expectations to take a movie from, “Oh, this is going to be bad,” to, “Whoa! That was not bad!”
Without the everyday people for Sacha Baron Cohen to interact with in his new movie The Dictator – plus that lackluster preview – I was fully prepared to write a review about why Cohen had been better as his previous alter-egos Borat and Brüno.
Boy, was I wrong.
There is still something missing without the unintentionally funny folks who interact with Cohen in character as part of a ruse – a staple of his earlier films. But Cohen’s Dictator, full name: General Admiral Haffaz Aladeen, exists on the big screen only, surrounded by other (very funny) actors.
The you-know-they’re-coming cracks about terrorist attacks are hard to take at first, but the writers toe the line quite well. Of course, there are a litany of offensive jokes about religions, women and different ethnic groups. But if you’ve got a taste for un-p.c. humor, The Dictator is funny. Really funny. Here are the top three reasons why it’s worth seeing.
Tyranny As Comedy
It takes a pretty special actor – not to mention awesome writers – to make this West-hating Middle Eastern dictator so hysterical. Likeable, too! The key is that we never actually see Aladeen do anything all that bad outside of moments of pure farce. He simply believes that his way is right and there’s no place for democracy. “My people love to be oppressed!” he insists in earnest. When Aladeen winds up in New York City, he meets a girl (Anna Faris) who uncovers his soft side and he is horrified at the notion that he might actually be … a nice guy. It’s such an abhorrent thought that it nearly leads him to suicide.
The Not-So-Offensive Stuff
Interspersed with the barrage of offensive jokes (if you laugh, you won’t be the only one in the theater – trust me) you’ll find some more lighthearted fare. That keeps things moving and makes this Cohen outing a more quick and breezy affair than his ruse-filled flicks, which drag out at times. The cultural revelations are among my favorite laughs, like a scene in which a struggling Aladeen is wearing Crocs and his footwear is lambasted for being “the international sign of a man who has given up hope.” The Dictator is chock full of clever satire, too, and a love story, if you can believe that.
The Other Actors
You don’t have to go beyond the title to know who hogs most of the 83-minute run time. But Cohen’s costars do a bang up job of sharing the screen. Ben Kingsley plays the ultimate straight man to the outrageous Aladeen, while Faris is nearly unrecognizable as a brunette hippie with more hair under her arms than on her head (she swears she grew it out herself). If the fun of the older Cohen movies was watching ordinary people react to whatever ridiculous character he was playing, part of the fun here is watching the other actors play off of the zany leading man. That adds a real sparkle to a film that might otherwise be written off as Cohen softening.
But if this is the actor slowing down, I’ll still take it.