It's easy enough for me to laugh at Sacha Baron Cohen's "The Dictator," and I did, heartily. After all, I'm not a torture victim, a limbless refugee or a lackey living in constant fear of execution, all of whom become punch lines in this hugely offensive, outrageously funny farce. As for the jokes about college-educated, culturally sensitive types -- now, those are just hurtful.
"The Dictator" stars Cohen as General Admiral Haffaz Aladeen, ruler of the fictional North African country Wadiya (as you must already know, thanks to Cohen's months-long, in-character publicity campaign). Covered in medals and odd facial hair, Aladeen bears a resemblance to Adenoid Hynkel, the Hitler parody in Charlie Chaplin's "The Great Dictator," but it's history that makes Aladeen recognizable. With his personalized salute (a one-finger heil) and cheerful bloodlust (he plays a Wii game called "The Munich Olympics"), Aladeen could be any number of Husseins or Qaddafis.
The story is a golden oldie: While visiting New York, Aladeen is kidnapped by pro-democracy thugs and replaced by a double (also Cohen, in another nod to Chaplin). But this is mainly an excuse for Cohen to say hilariously horrible things ("You have a rape center here? Great!") and indulge in some rather gratuitous gross-out humor. Anna Faris, as Aladeen's earthy-crunchy love interest, Zoey, is woefully underused, as is Ben Kingsley as a scheming cabinet member, but Jason Mantzoukas (FX's "The League") is a real find, matching Cohen riff for ridiculous riff as Aladeen's helpmate, Nadal.
"The Dictator" steers clear of religion -- no fatwas, please! -- but the Middle East may soon be standing in the complaints line with Kazhakstan, still steamed over Cohen's "Borat." Then again, Wall Streeters, the media, the Bush administration and the average voting-age American also take a shellacking when Aladeen, in a brilliant closing speech, paints a deadly accurate picture of a dictatorial USA. Who's laughing now?
PLOT A dethroned Middle Eastern tyrant vows to save his country from democracy.
PLAYING AT Area theaters
BOTTOM LINE Outrageously offensive and shamefully funny. Just forgive yourself and keep laughing.