Coming to America

BY VINNIE ABBATECOLA

Sacha Baron Cohen in the Dictator

One of the greatest pleasures of comedy is that you never know how much an actor will do to make you laugh. You might even require a map to see exactly how far he or she will go.

We sit in delicious anxiety as we wait to see what kinds of fun shocks the comedian will use to surprise the audience. Whether the bombshells are offensive or not, credit must be rewarded to these artists who aren’t afraid to go in for the kill.

Sacha Baron Cohen has won distinction for being one of the bravest and most revealing (sometimes literally) comedic actors working in film today. He’s not known to shy away from sensitive topics in both the social, cultural and political arenas. Rather, he attacks everything that is wrong in society today, including prejudices that pollute our lives. Baron Cohen is an actor who can make audience members recoil as they look on with wide-eyed astonishment at the hilariously uncouth activities he throws himself into, as we saw with his characters of Borat and Bruno.

In director Larry Charles’ third collaboration with Baron Cohen, “The Dictator,” the team shifts away from the mockumentary style of film-making they used for “Borat” and “Bruno,” and instead use a more scripted approach. While their latest project doesn’t have quite as much shock-value as their previous films where they interact with real people, there are still gasps of foul hilarity to be had.

Admiral General Hafez Aladeen (Baron Cohen) is the supreme dictator of the fictional North African Republic of Wadiya. He is ruthless, greedy and anti-Semetic, among other unpleasant things. Aladeen refuses to accept democracy into his homeland, executes people at will and is secretly building nuclear weapons. After the United Nations Security Council threatens to intervene with Aladeen’s dastardly deeds, he plans to make a trip to New York City to address the council.

He soon becomes lost in the city after he escapes a hitman (John C. Reilly), and his beard has been shaved off, rendering him nearly unrecognizable. He is then hired by Zoey (Anna Farris) to work at her eco-friendly food store. Soon, Aladeen must find a way into the UN conference to prevent his wrongly-appointed body-double from signing a peace treaty, which will bring an end the dictator’s tyrannical rule.

Baron Cohen has the tendency to play foreigners who are placed in America whenever he’s in a satirical comedy. There is a certain genius to that, since he uses these characters to address today’s issues in the United States, while also comparing our own traditions to that of the character’s homeland. The way he handles the fish-out-of-native-country roles makes the audience reflect on their own views of several issues, be they economic or social, and encourages them to look at these topics from different viewpoints. Baron Cohen can fluently turn a simple comedy into a daring political statement.

As with his other characters, Aladeen lives a rather unique love life, as evidenced by his champion-level of philandering with countless celebrities. Hundreds of photos of superstars adorn one of Aladeen’s bedroom walls, including those of Lindsay Lohan (hardly a surprise), Ellen DeGeneres and Oprah Winfrey. Megan Fox plays herself as Aladeen’s latest bed-buddy, who leaves right after being paid so she can be with the Italian prime minister. This is a sharp little jab at the political sex scandals we’re all too familiar hearing about.

In the supporting cast, Anna Farris plays virtually the same character as in her other movies, except with black hair instead of her trademark blonde. But she still manages to be a delightful, sprightly oddball as Aladeen’s new friend. Ben Kingsley plays the dictator’s uncle who accompanies him to America. Kingsley, sadly, doesn’t become too involved in the film’s most comedic moments. Since he’s usually a serious actor, it would have provided more laughs to see him cut loose on all of the craziness.

Contrary to Cohen’s other nose-dives into courageous raunchiness, which have had viewers aghast within the first few minutes, “The Dictator’s” screenplay, by Cohen, Alec Berg, David Mandel and Jeff Schaffer, takes some time to get to that point. There are a few passable chuckles to be had in the beginning, but the film appears to be surprisingly tame at first for a Baron Cohen comedy, especially since he tends to come right out with the hard hits.

He does, however, amusingly and lovingly dedicate the film to a certain tyrant at the very start of the film, and once his character arrives in America, he returns to his old, shocking self.

Sacha Baron Cohen’s over-the-top jovialities return just in time for the film to bathe in its sweet, offensive ridiculousness. There is a scene where Aladeen assists a woman giving birth in Zoey’s store, and it includes some imagery that I’m sure you have only seen in one of those “miracle of life” videos in your high school biology class. Scenes like these are the ones that Cohen is known for, the ones that make you sink back in your seat because of discomfort, only to have you in hysterics seconds later.

Another uproarious sequence involves Aladeen and his friend, Nadal (Jason Mantzoukas), riding in a helicopter over NYC with two tourists. Aladeen and Nadal engage in certain conversations in their native language, which soon leads the tourists to believe that the two friends are terrorists. The whole time, Aladeen is decked-out in an American-flag jumpsuit, believing it will alleviate any feelings of suspicion that others might have.

Cohen is one of those I’m-going-to-do-something-totally-out-there-and-I-don’t-care-what-others-think actors, and director Larry Charles can set the scenes wonderfully so he and Cohen can catch others off guard in whatever scenarios that the characters get themselves into. However, the mockumentary approach works better for Cohen’s political style of comedy, since he uses real people in real situations to make his voice heard.

But his work in “The Dictator” shows that no matter what method he uses to tell his witty stories, he is capable of placing film viewers and his fellow characters into their un-comfort zones. Cohen isn’t a dictator, but is instead a comedy king.

Final grade: B+