You may judge the high level of ambition of The Dictator, or maybe just its determination to leave no pee joke unexpelled, no social group unsplashed, by the notice in the end credits that the views expressed do not necessarily represent those of the United Nations. I’m glad we’re clear on that. Otherwise, credulous viewers might have thought the United Nations would invite Sacha Baron Cohen to show up in uniform, with a big, square, multicolored trivet fastened to his breast by way of military decoration, and insult the diverse peoples of the world without shame, restraint or the slightest hint of understanding what he was doing. Of course, none of the slurs that he so roundly trills at the UN and elsewhere are so grave as the one that falls back on his own fictional persona: a brutish representative of the North African (Arab, Muslim, all of the above) nations, whom Cohen impersonates in an accent so complexly phlegm- and diphthong-impacted that it tortures “outside” into a four-syllable word. The defamation effected by Cohen’s performance ought to be deplored by all those who really do share the stated commitment of the United Nations to universal tolerance and mutual respect, and who therefore (you guessed it) come in for their own special spritzing in The Dictator.
“That’s not funny!” objects Zoey (Anna Faris), manager of an organic food co-op in Brooklyn, whenever Cohen (or rather Admiral General Aladeen, supreme leader of oil-rich but otherwise abject Wadiya) blithely expresses his contempt for the nearest sub-Saharan African, East Asian, amputee, fat boy or (lowest of all in his esteem) woman. Zoey is a proud member of a feminist, anti-racist, nonhierarchical collective “for people of all or no genders” and so cannot imagine that an impoverished asylum-seeker (which is what Aladeen claims to be when he meets her) could say such terrible things and mean them. They must be failed attempts at humor, she thinks—but in fact each affront to her sensibility (and the audience’s usual standards of decorum) is a raucously successful joke, made all the better by the peristaltic spasms of outrage and forbearance that ripple through her, and by the habit of self-satisfaction that keeps Aladeen from realizing that he doesn’t seem very martial or imposing, now that he’s disguised in a Take Back the Night T-shirt and shorts that fall only to the middle of his long, bony thighs.
Aladeen has found himself in this get-up (which pretty much wraps him, not that he notices, in the colors of the Israeli flag) because the plot of The Dictator has conflated recent military and diplomatic events with the uprisings against Ben Ali, Qaddafi, Mubarak and Assad. As the movie begins, an international coalition led by the United States is demanding that Aladeen explain his highly suspect nuclear program to the United Nations, activists in Wadiya and abroad are yearning for democratic reform, and a secretive elite is plotting regime change. Together, these circumstances conspire to take Aladeen from the gilded and leopard-spotted pomposities of his palace to the homely multi-ethnic glories of Brooklyn, where he hides while plotting his return to power.
As political satire, The Dictator can be summed up as a series of rudely hilarious skits developed by Cohen, director Larry Charles and a trio of former Seinfeld writers based on their understanding of the Arab Spring and their intuitions about its potential disappointments. How much do we need opinions on these matters from five Jewish guys? Let me come back to that question. For now, I’d prefer to talk about the aspect of The Dictator that goes a little deeper than political satire: its celebration of romantic bickering.
At heart, The Dictator is the story of a man who thinks he wants to get his way at all times and in all things, but who discovers that life is sweeter when you have somebody to argue with. In its generosity, the movie gives Aladeen two such loving antagonists: Zoey (the first woman he has ever known who talks back to men in positions of authority) and an exiled nuclear scientist named Nadal (Jason Mantzoukas), who, at continual risk to his life, plays an exasperated Abbott to Aladeen’s taller, skinnier Costello. Exchanges between the two men are ping-pong matches of rapidly escalating absurdity, in which Nadal cannot believe the ball keeps coming back to him. The exchanges with Zoey, by contrast, are more like dog-training sessions, which the shaggy-haired Aladeen initially resents as an imposition but soon comes to welcome as a form of play. In the scene where he learns to rely more on himself—an obligatory part of every ruler-in-disguise comedy, here given the characteristic Cohen twist—his bounding exhilaration reaches its height, as the form of self-reliance that Zoey teaches, though revelatory to Aladeen, is well-known to most male dogs and teenage boys.