THE DICTATOR directed by Larry Charles, written by Sacha Baron Cohen, Alec Berg, David Mandel and Jeff Schaffer, with Cohen, Anna Faris, Ben Kingsley and Jason Mantzoukas. A Paramount release. 84 minutes. Opens Wednesday (May 16). For venues and times, see Movies. Reviewed in next week’s issue.
New York City - On paper it sounds like a gimmick, but Sacha Baron Cohen's in-character press conference as the Dictator actually feels like a clever piece of performance art. Think Andy Kaufman but with a deeper knowledge of pop culture and a sharper satiric edge.
Journalists from around the world have crowded into the Empire Ballroom of the Waldorf Astoria Hotel, where a big shrine to his Excellency Admiral General Aladeen of Wadiya (Cohen), the anti-hero of Larry Charles's new movie, has been erected.
Flags and gaudy oil portraits of the bearded tyrant line the walls, and a large urn, like the one upended on Ryan Seacrest at the Oscars, has been placed behind a blinged-out podium.
When the General finally arrives, his dark suit festooned with medals, he's accompanied by groups of placard-holding Aladeen supporters (one sign reads "Give persecution a chance") and a security unit of half a dozen machine-gun-toting women.
"My female virgin guards protect me at all times," he says later. "I know they are virgins because I have their virginity checked every night by the head of" - he pauses - "my penis."
Ever since Borat rode onto a Toronto Film Festival red carpet in a carriage pulled by a group of peasant women, Cohen has perfected the art of the media launch.
You won't get any insight into the making of the movie, or what his intentions might have been (for some of that you can see my interview with co-stars Ben Kingsley and Jason Mantzoukas at nowtoronto.com/movies). But that doesn't mean there's not a ton of thought behind his film - or its marketing. You just need to look for it between the dozens of juicy sound bites, photo ops and surprise guest appearances (like on Saturday Night Live, where he kidnapped his Hugo director, Martin Scorsese).
"Welcome, journalists of the Zionist media!" he greets us, in an accent that sounds like Arnold Schwarzenegger as an Iraqi exchange student.
"Today I wish to highlight the plight of an endangered group: dictators. These brave leaders are suffering a daily victimization and brutality from the supposed crime of embezzling money, oppressing their people and doing a tiny little bit of genocide."
Then he lists the poor dictators who have recently fallen: Saddam, Kim Jong Il, Gaddafi and Oprah Winfrey.
That gets a big laugh.
He's even gone so far as to get us to submit our questions beforehand so he and his people can vet them. Sinister? Not really. It's just in keeping with his character's shtick. A real dictator would do that, right? And give Cohen credit for staying in character.
He flirts with female journalists - implying he wants to have "sex activities" with a comely E! correspondent - gets choked up when a German writer uses his name and Hitler's in the same sentence, and asks all the Jews in the crowd to raise their hands, whispering to his aides afterwards, "Do we have enough sacks?"
In the movie, Aladeen is a big fan of movie stars, plying them with gifts and money in exchange for sexual favours.
"I have made beautiful love and also sex activity with many of your celebrities," he tells us. "Britney Spears, Beyoncé and Kim Kardashian. She is a very nice girl but unbelievably hairy. When I pulled her panties down, I thought I was looking in the mirror."
When someone defends Kimmy K, Cohen shoots back.
"You think I'm worried about a Persian girl with sisters? I will send them all back to Iran."
In the movie, Megan Fox and even Edward Norton are featured in brief cameos as paid-off sex toys for the dictator's pleasure. When someone mentions Fox's recent pregnancy, Cohen quickly chimes in.
"There are rumours that I am the father," he says. "This is literally impossible. It would be the first-ever anal conception. And if she's pregnant, then so is Heidi Klum and also Donald Trump." Big laugh. "He does anything for money."
And which candidate would he endorse in the U.S. election?
"Mitchell Romney has the makings of a great dictator," he says. "He's incredibly wealthy but pays no taxes. And it's not much of a leap to go from firing people to firing squads."