And the biting script never pulls its punches, leaping us laughing at the audacity while making a serious point.
Aladeen (Baron Cohen) is the pampered dictator of Wadiya, who travels to New York to tell the UN to stop nosing around his nuclear "energy" plants. But his Uncle Tamir (Kingsley) is plotting to kill him and replace him with a double who will sign a democratic constitution essentially selling the country to oil companies. Aladeen manages to escape, but no one recognises him cleanly shaven, so he teams up with health-food activist Zoey (Faris) and a countryman (Mantzoukas) to get his country back.
Baron Cohen and director Charles abandon the mock-doc style of Borat and Bruno for a straightforward comedy, although they still refuse to tone things down.
The on-the-bone satire takes aim at terrorism and oppression, as well as gender roles, torture and race, so our laughter is nervous from start to finish, as the punchlines feel deeply inappropriate. Although the fact that the script dares to say these things makes the film startlingly important.
Poking fun at sacred cows is urgently needed at a time when most Hollywood comedies are so bland that they barely raise a polite smile. The sequences involving cleverly re-created newscasts are hilarious in ways that the gross-out slapstick isn't. And Baron Cohen manages to bring an intriguing pathos to Aladeen that catches us off guard. He may be a brutal tyrant, but he has the soul of a little boy.
Even without the documentary format, Charles keeps the action grounded in reality, shooting on New York streets while packing in witty cameos from Megan Fox to Garry Shandling. But what makes this film worth seeing is the climactic scene, in which Aladeen breaks into a rant that echoes Charlie Chaplin's final speech in his 1940 Hitler spoof The Great Dictator. It's at this moment that the film's real theme comes into focus in a way that will probably offend American viewers, even though it really needed to be said.
Run time: 83 mins
In Theaters: Wednesday 16th May 2012
Box Office USA: $59.6M
Box Office Worldwide: $167.7M
Distributed by: Paramount Pictures
Production compaines: Paramount Pictures
Contactmusic.com: 3.5 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 57%
Fresh: 120 Rotten: 89
IMDB: 6.4 / 10
Director: Larry Charles
Starring: Sacha Baron Cohen as Aladeen / Efawadh, Sayed Badreya as Omar, Aasif Mandvi as Doctor, Megan Fox as Herself, Anna Faris as Zoey, John C. Reilly as Clayton, Michelle Bergh as Aladeen's Mother, Adeel Akhtar as Maroush, Ben Kingsley as Tamir, Olivia Taylor Dudley as Nurse Svetlana, Jason Mantzoukas as Nadal, Kathryn Hahn as Pregnant Woman, Rizwan Manji as Patient