With The Dictator, Sacha Baron Cohen finds himself addressing a situation no entertainer wants to confront: What do you do when the shtick that was your bread-and-butter just can't work anymore?
Borat was, after all, a minor masterpiece of comedic filmmaking, combining Cohen's sensibility as anarchic, gleefully offensive social satirist with faux-documentary style in something that emerged as Candid Camera by way of South Park. But by the time he was ready for his follow-up, Brüno, it was clear that Cohen wasn't going to be able to sneak up on people anymore. Sure, he could find plenty of work for hire as a gifted comic actor in stuff like Hugo, or more Madagascar voiceovers. But for his own original creations, he was going to have to find a new, Punk'd-free delivery system.
The Dictator eases us into a more conventional comedy setting with a biography of General Aladeen (Cohen) - the capriciously iron-fisted ruler of the North African country of Wadiya - courtesy of fake TV news footage. Wadiya is facing international military action in response to its weapons program, requiring Aladeen to address the United Nations in New York. There, his uncle (Ben Kingsley) arranges to have Aladeen executed and replaced by an easily manipulated double who will sign a new constitution making Wadiya a democracy.
Aladeen manages to escape, and wanders into the wilds of New York shaven and unrecognizable as a reviled despot. For most comedians, this would be the cue for the tamest of fish-out-of-water humor, but Cohen - working with Borat and Brüno director Larry Charles - attacks the concept with his characteristic refusal to find anything sacred.
Aladeen's encounter with Zoe (Anna Faris) - the aggressively progressive owner of a "vegan feminist" grocery store - turns into a hilarious skewering both of granola-lefty stereotypes and Aladeen's inability to deal with a diverse world. When the conversation between Aladeen and his expatriate nuclear-program chief (Jason Mantzoukas) aboard a tourist helicopter is misunderstood to be a terrorist plot, it's in a manner more outrageous than the trailer snippet hints at.
Along the way, Cohen is almost certain to offend somebody, in ways American film comedy almost never attempts. Sure, there's stuff that's simply outrageous, like Aladeen's impromptu act of midwifery that turns into an occasion for a romantic interlude. But this is also a guy who won't shy away from courting gasps when Aladeen plays the "Munich Olympics" module on Wii Terrorist, or turning a culture's devaluation of female babies into a punchline.
It all comes to a glorious climax when Aladeen gives a speech about why America doesn't understand the beneficial aspects of a dictatorship, rattling off uncomfortable truths. If you're not folding your arms in disgust at Cohen's views, you'll be howling with laughter at his ability to puncture America's sense of moral superiority.
Inevitably, some of the gags fall flat, and the stretch of The Dictator that takes place before Aladeen gets to New York isn't nearly as inspired. But it's hard to resist the goofy brilliance behind a movie that sets the lonely urban wanderings of its protagonist to the clichéd tune of R.E.M.'s "Everybody Hurts" - except with lyrics sung in Arabic. Or that casts John C. Reilly as a covert operative embarrassed by his obsolete torture equipment.
Cohen proves he doesn't need unwitting suckers to make his comedy work. He just needs an audience willing to laugh at liberals, zealots, racists, assassinations, political persecution, abortion and the idea that every male celebrity has his price for a little gay sex with a Chinese diplomat. You know who you are.