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The Dictator

Director: Larry Charles
Cast: Sacha Baron Cohen, Anna Faris, John C. Reilly, Jason Mantzoukas, Ben Kingsley, Megan Fox, Bobby Lee

(Paramount Pictures; US theatrical: 16 May 2012 (General release); UK theatrical: 16 May 2012 (General release); 2012)

You're All A-Rabs to Me

I know everyone would like to de-emphasize that a little bit. But I’m very proud that there’s a political element to it.
Larry Charles

“Girls, show him your bosoms.” So orders Tamir (Ben Kingsley), eyeing a selection of scantily clad lovelies. He’s assembled them to ensure the cooperation of the idiot shepherd Efawadh (Sacha Baron Cohen) in a plan to take over the government of Wadiya, a plan premised on replacing the real dictator of Wadiyah, Aladeen (also played by Cohen), with the lookalike. For now, about a half-hour into The Dictator, the plan appears to be working, as Aladeen is currently removed to New York City, rendered unrecognizable—and so, powerless—by shaving off his massive dictator’s beard.

As Tamir (who is also Aladeen’s cousin, longsuffering and resentful) stands in the doorway, eager to be off but also concerned the girls will not have their desired effect, you might take a moment to ponder Sir Ben Kingsley, his remarkable face suggesting so many possibilities and raising so many questions. How did he come to be a part of such shenanigans? you might marvel. Was there a script in place before he signed on? Did he contribute to Baron Cohen’s improvish wackiness on the set or did he just hit his marks and recite his lines, utterly professionally and with all good humor?

The moment is fleeting, of course. The Dictator has lots of predictable business to launch: an assassination plot must be foiled, American hypocrisies must be named, and Efawadh must milk those bosoms. And so, the movie cuts back to Aladeen, slightly less idiotic than Efawadh, and currently embarked on a relationship with a girl whose bosoms, he notes, look like “insect bite.” Having mistaken Aladeen for a Wadiyan dissident, Zoey (Anna Faris) offers him a job at her feminist-vegan grocery shop, Free Earth Collective. She’s the perfect match for Aladeen, both being broadly drawn, credo-spouting cartoons, she the unshaven feminist and he the small-minded bully.

The movie submits, sort of seriously, that neither position is wholly effective on its own. He comes to appreciate the “democracy” she embodies and she soon recognizes the startling efficiency with which he manages her store (achieved by threatening both customers and employees). En route to their realizations, they share in a series of episodic adventures: she vividly berates a couple of cops for racially profiling her employee; they both assist in a birth on the Free Earth Collective floor (as they both reach inside the mother-to-be, a baby’s POV camera grants a hectic pink view of the birth canal, as well as the lovers-to-be handholding), and he licks her hair armpits, to the tune of “Let’s Get It On.”

Falling for Zoey (“that lesbian hobbit”) helps Aladeen to learn a few other lessons too, initiated when he runs into a nuclear scientist he had ordered executed, now working as a Mac Genius at a downtown Apple store. Back in Wadiya, Nadal (Jason Mantzoukas) was condemned for arguing with his Supreme Leader over whether a nuclear missile had to be pointy. Now, he admits, “Mostly I clean semen out of laptops,” before he reveals that none of the people Aladeen ordered executed was killed, but instead, all were shipped off to “Little Wadiya” (a minor plot point that makes Aladeen less hateful than he seemed, technically). When he’s not feeling good and bad about himself as a capitalist nerd, Nadal has been nurturing his righteous anger at the dictator while also hanging on to the idea that their homeland will be returned from its current laughing-stock status to global glory.

Toward this end, Nadal and Aladeen plot together to thwart Tamir’s plan to fool the UN with promises of turning Wayida into a democracy in order to reap the considerable benefits of capitalist alliances with the gabby Chinese entrepreneur Mr. Lao (Bobby Lee) as well as generic executives from BP and Gazprom. As he sees through this plan, Aladeen also sees through the essential corruption of the international financial system, helpfully articulating his insights in a speech railing against US one-percenters, racism, wiretapping, and fear-mongering mass media. With this speech, the film spells out what’s been mushy but also clear enough in the occasionally funny chaos preceding.

It’s not surprising that the movie’s comedy is rambunctious or its politics obvious. But none of it is especially smart either. And so your mind wanders: does Ben Kingsley have a Macbook Pro or what?


Cynthia Fuchs is director of Film & Media Studies and Associate Professor of English, Film & Video Studies, African and African American Studies, Sport & American Culture, and Women and Gender Studies at George Mason University.

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