The first laugh comes before the film has even started. "In loving memory of Kim Jong-il" reads the dedication title. It pretty much sets the tone for The Dictator, a broad, hit-and-miss satire about an Arab tyrant's indulgence of his capricious – and murderous – will.
While Kim Jong-il may get the opening nod, Sacha Baron Cohen's lavishly bearded despot, General Aladeen, is more obviously inspired by Gaddafi and Saddam, who cosied up to the West even while they were torturing and killing their own people. "Broad" hardly covers it. This is a man who orders the disappearance of minions, aides and even a wife with a surreptitious finger swiped across his throat.
The film marks a change from Baron Cohen's previous incarnations Borat and Brüno in ditching the guerilla stunts – ambushing real people, and so on – for a conventional scripted feature. But it reprises the fish-out-of-water trick by sending its anti-hero (sub-hero?) to America. Aladeen, the "mad dog" of a North African state, Wadiya, has provoked the Western powers by announcing that he's months away from enriching weapons-grade uranium – to be used "for peaceful purposes", he says, before giggling uncontrollably. His determination to have nuclear capability isn't matched by any understanding of warheads: he just wants the rocket to be huge and pointy, and he'll dispose of his leading nuclear scientist if he doesn't get his way.
Threatened with air strikes, Aladeen counters by travelling to "the devil's nest of America" to address the UN. He knows how to make an entrance, too, arriving at his Manhattan hotel astride a camel and flanked by a cadre of unsmiling female bodyguards. The outrage flows both ways: on being installed in his hotel suite, Aladeen yells at his entourage, "Nobody touch the minibar – it's a fucking rip-off!" What he doesn't know is that his shifty brother and henchman (Ben Kingsley) has arranged for him to be murdered and replaced by a peasant body-double, a scheme that goes awry when Aladeen, now beardless, escapes his assassins and goes on the run in New York. Thus begins an encounter between old-school bigotry and new-world correctness to make you wince, groan and, on occasion, roar with laughter.
His guide to this terra incognita is an earnest vegetarian cafe manager, Zoe (Anna Faris), who somehow takes on the appalling Aladeen as a pet project. Either she's too dim to notice his contempt for her ("that lesbian hobbit") or else she sees something in him that nobody else does. Perhaps she's charmed that a grown man should need a primer in the basics of masturbation: confined to a dark broom cupboard, Aladeen is soon engaged in a feverish catch-up ("What sorcery is this?"). Even less edifying is the spectacle of him playing midwife to a woman as she gives birth and mislaying his mobile phone in the same place from which the baby has arrived. The vag-cam is certainly a new one on me. To judge from the audience reaction when I saw it, you can't have enough mobile-stuck-inside-a-body-cavity gags.
The scriptwriters seem to work on the principle that offence is the best form of attack, and to the casual racism and misogyny you can also add jokes about torture, child pornography, rape and murder. "You're wanted for war crimes," someone tells Aladeen. "That stuff never sticks," he replies, and you could say the same for Baron Cohen's comedy. It's just too crude, too off-the-wall tasteless, for anyone to be genuinely offended..
Baron Cohen has mastered a style of provocation that regards taboos as fodder for his gag-machine. It's been observed that a tyrannical regime can stand anything but ridicule, the ultimate respect-destroyer. Perhaps they should smuggle a DVD of this to Assad's palace in Syria. They've tried nearly everything else.