After more than a decade living in an insecure mindset labeled "9-11," we seem to have finally awakened to the new morning of 9-12.
This paradigm shift is evident at the movies where New York City has become a target for fresh attacks. It's as though the old Lorenz Hart song line, "We'll take Manhattan," has been updated for the age of aliens, superheroes and outrageous satirists.
Terror from the skies rains down on recognizable NYC highrises in "The Avengers," which continues to rule at the box office for the third week. Apparently the sight of people fleeing in panic in Big Apple streets has been rendered harmless enough over the ensuing years to turn over to Marvel Comics.
Last weekend, Sacha Baron Cohen and company launched a stealthier, and maybe more insidious attack in the form of "The Dictator."
Whether or not Cohen is the most outrageously original comic actor in movies today, few would argue that he is the most fearless. When he was filming "Barat," his crew included an on-the-set attorney to help with whatever, uh, misunderstandings might arise from his kamikaze approach to interviewing fools.
If Cohen's clown-faced, rubber-limbed, terminally tasteless and utterly inappropriate screen alter-egos had lived in an earlier time, they would have been prime candidates for tar-and-feathering. But now that his fame has blown his cover for any more mockumentaries, he has to take aim on more stationary sacred cows in contemporary American society that doesn't even realize it has sacred cows.
Or, rather, evil-doer enemies of such magnitude, they have kept the mightiest nation on earth engaged in one senseless war after another since the attack on the World Trade towers almost 11 years ago.
Behind the vaguely obscene beard and uniforms that look like leisure suits bedecked with medals, his Hafaz Alladeen-ruler of the oil-rich North African kingdom of Waadeya-is a ruthless imbecile of ridiculous proportions.
But after a planned visit to New York to address the United Nations goes awry, Alladeen finds himself shorn of his facial hair and his power, cast adrift in Manhattan as a body double manipulated by his evil adviser Tamir (Ben Kingsley) takes his place on the world stage.
Yes, the storyline is a little hard to explain, beginning with the question, Ben Kingsley? The guy from "Gandhi"?
The script, which gives Cohen the top writing credit, puts little effort into being credible. All it cares about are setups for gags-the more politically incorrect and insensitive, the better.
Some of the jokes, especially the ones fracturing the English language, are hilarious. Others not so much. But, hit or miss, it's fascinating fun following him down his reckless path, turning the audience into gawkers at a comic car crash, repeating, "Did he really say that?"
After Alladeen is taken under the wing of a political activist health-food store owner played by Anna Faris, the movie aims its satirical scalpel at topics closer to home. From Alladeen's unrepentant misogyny, through his infantile obsessions with genitalia and bodily functions, Cohen leaves political correctness in shambles. A decapitated head gets some of the best lines in the script. The surprise is how the star-who's in almost ever scene-makes this boorish behavior somehow lovable.
Turning real dictators into punch lines, working in newsreel footage of real political figures, setting up celebrities from Megan Fox to Edward Norton for tasteless sexual gags, Cohen and director Larry Charles are all about the risky, exhilarating thrill of pushing boundaries and limits.
In terms of comedy, if you've seen the trailers for "The Dictator," you've already seen the best parts. On the Sacha scale, The Dictator is better than Ali G, but not as great as Borat.
After revealing his tender heart in "Hugo," Cohen lets himself get a little mushy as well as inadvertently showing his more serious side in "The Dictator." Like Charlie Chaplin's immortal speech when he tackled a similar, if far more serious, subject in "The Great Dictator," Cohen also delivers a memorable speech at the climax of his film.
In Chaplin's 1940 movie-a "talkie" after his mega-stardom in silent comedies-he was trying to warn the world about the impending horror of Adolf Hitler.
In Cohen's case, he's warning us about ourselves.
You only wish it were a little funnier.
* Contact Rick Chatenever at firstname.lastname@example.org