The earnest monologue that derailed Chaplin's otherwise brilliant Hitler satire needed an ironic makeover.
Squint, and Sacha Baron Cohen's and Charlie Chaplin's biographies start to look alike. Both men are British comic film stars. Both have a penchant for slapstick and satirizing the powerful. Both have Jewish roots—or were thought to. So it makes sense that Baron Cohen would eventually get around to re-imagining one of Chaplin's works. The Dictator, out this week, resembles Chaplin's 1940 comedy The Great Dictator in both name and plot: Both movies have stars playing the dual roles of a fascist dictator and the lowly civilian impersonating them. Unsurprisingly, Baron Cohen turns Chaplin's premise upside-down. Surprisingly, he ends up with more potent movie than Chaplin's.
The Great Dictator basically split Chaplin's time between his two roles: the villainous Hitler send-up "Adenoid Hynkel," and an unnamed heroic Jewish barber who impersonates Hynkel. In Baron Cohen's film, much more camera time is spent with the titular tyrant than with the simple goat herder who switches places with him. Adm. Gen. Shabazz Aladeen is the film's hero, though admittedly not a very sympathetic one. A cartoonish composite of the world's worst leaders, he's oil-rich, murderous, and has dreams of using nuclear weapons against Israel. On a trip to New York City for an appearance at the United Nations, Aladeen is betrayed by an evil uncle (played by Ben Kingsley, always delighted with roles at odds with the Gandhi portrayal that defined him). He enlists the help of the unwitting Zoey (Anna Faris), a feminist, vegan, organic food store manager straight out of Portlandia.