REVIEW – “The Dictator”

Could there be a better week for Sacha Baron Cohen to release a film called “The Dictator”?

A few days ago, Cohen parked a camel on the Croisette at the Cannes Festival, in what seemed like the first act of a cult of personality. Pairing a touch of showmanship, a frisky film, and the spotlight of the festival, the star of “Borat” all but declared himself the worldwide ruler of comedy.

Like many public rituals under totalitarians, “The Dictator” is long on stagecraft but a little thin on purpose. It’s not clear why this film needed to be made or released, except that a strongman has to appear on the balcony from time to time just to let the people remember his power.

Nevertheless, such elaborate escapades can be a source of amusement. There’s a great deal to be laughed at in Middle Eastern dictatorships, like random executions and nuclear proliferation. So in a theater as in totalitarian life, there are moments when a person must laugh to himself. Then every once in a while, that laughter becomes a big public chuckle. And that’s when you wonder if the secret police are on the way.

A dictator must adapt to succeed. Cohen has departed from the comedic-documentary he used effectively in “Borat” and repeated in “Bruno.” There are only so many times you can get away with that formula. “The Dictator” is a more conventional narrative satire, a make-believe tale of a Middle Eastern dictator who gets dumped in New York by a scheming underling and must recover his place in the world of totalitarianism. Faux-cumentary or not, Cohen still appreciates a good fish out of water.

In matters of torture, one should suspect Cohen prefers shock treatment. It’s Cohen’s only tactic. His trick is to go further into bad taste than anyone else would go. Some Arab groups are already offended, not without cause. The movie’s most riotous laugh arrives at the discovery of self-pleasure; it will leave you gasping as well as laughing.

“The Dictator”’s title recalls the Chaplin film, a satire of Adolf Hitler released on the brink of war. Appropriately, there are a few moments of fairly good physical slapstick comedy, alas a silent movie. The “Dictator” is a little like Harold Lloyd meets “There’s Something About Mary.” So get your mind around that one, and enjoy the movie.

Screen Comment is at Cannes reporting daily from the screening room and the press conference. Follow us on Twitter.

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