Sacha Baron Cohen takes a different approach with ''The Dictator.''
Instead of foisting one of his oddball characters on unsuspecting folks with the cameras running, this time everyone on screen is in on the joke.
One thing hasn't changed, though. The result is a comedy that is both scathing and scatalogical.
There's always been a strong strain of social commentary in Cohen's work, something that gets overlooked when Borat is terrorizing genteel southerners with his bathroom habits or the flamboyant Bruno is chasing fame while barely clothed.
The finale for ''The Dictator'' involves a speech before the United Nations that makes Michael Moore sound like Michelle Malkin by comparison as it deflates American arrogance and smug superiority about its brand of democracy. In a sense, the movie does to the audience what Cohen and his collaborators do to the people on screen in ''Borat'' and ''Bruno.'' It lulls them into a false sense of security laughing along at the outrageous behavior of its title character before blindsiding them with something else entirely.
It will be interesting to see how that tact plays with audiences. Reaction to ''The Dictator'' may be even more polarizing than ''Borat'' and ''Bruno.'' Then again, those who might be most offended by the movie probably wouldn't venture into a theater showing it even if Sarah Palin was there to personally introduce it.
WHAT: ''The Dictator''
STARS: Sacha Baron Cohen, Anna Faris, Ben Kingsley, Jason Mantzoukas, John C. Reilly,
STORYLINE: A North African dictator is replaced by an impostor and stranded in New York, and he teams up with a liberal vegan food co-op manager to regain power.
DIRECTOR: Larry Charles
RATING: R for strong crude and sexual content, brief male nudity, language and some violent images.
While there are some sharp political jabs here, Cohen is more of an anarchist than an ideologue. Any target is ripe for ridicule if there is a laugh to be had. Zoey, a liberal vegan food co-op manager played by Anna Faris, takes as many shots as any conservative character in the screenplay by Cohen, Howland native Jeff Schaffer, Alec Berg and David Mandel.
Chances are good that everyone will find something to be offended by in the movie's brisk 84 minutes. And adding to the discomfort, they probably will catch themselves laughing at the scenes they know they should find offensive.
Cohen plays General Alideen, leader of the oil-rich North African nation of Wadiya. Alideen spends his days ordering the murder of anyone who offends him and playing ''Terrorist 2K12'' on his Wii, and he spends his country's oil money paying celebrities for sex (a wall covered with Polaroids of his conquests - and a celebrity cameo - is one of the funniest moments in the first half of the film).
Tamir (Ben Kingsley), the rightful leader of Wadiya, arranges for Alideen to be kidnapped by a rogue U.S. agent (John C. Reilly) and replaced by his body double long enough for Tamir to open up Wadiya's borders to oil-craving multinational corporations. Alideen escapes, not before humiliating the agent for this outmoded and rudimentary torture devices, and tries to regain power before his lookalike can address the United Nations and declare that he is making Wadiya a democracy. His only allies are Zoey, who doesn't realize her new employee is the man she was protesting, and Nadal (Jason Mantzoukas), the former head of his nuclear weapons program whose murder Alideen ordered.
Yeah, it turns out none of the people Alideen ordered to be killed were actually killed. Instead, they were shipped to America, where they became angry dissidents. That's one of the far-fetched twists they come up with to make their dictator a little more palatable. But Cohen, director Larry Charles and the writers pull off a Herculean feat they create a movie where the audience ultimately roots for the dictator.
Cohen has a way of saying the most despicable things with a disarming twinkle in his eye - when informed by a woman she is pregnant, Alideen responds, ''Are you have a boy or an abortion?'' - and his commitment to the character is absolute. The movie also makes creative use of music, featuring overused soundtrack staples like REM's ''Everybody Hurts'' and having the familiar instrumentals accompany Arab-sounding vocals.
The anything-for-a-laugh approach does dilute the thematic impact and is contradictory at times. One of the best bits involves Alideen and Nadal on a helicopter tour of New York with two American tourists. As they speak in their native tongue about Fourth of July fireworks around the Statue of Liberty and the 2012 Porsche 911, all the Americans understand are ''Statue of Liberty,'' ''9/11,'' ''2012'' and explosion noises. It's shockingly hilarious, but it also makes no sense why the two characters would start speaking in a language we haven't heard them use for the rest of the movie, especially in a scene where they are trying to pass themselves off as American tourists.
If ''The Dictator'' was aiming for ''Dr. Strangelove''-caliber satire, it falls short. But it finds a remarkable number of laughs in an inherently unfunny topic.