I jumped the gun on calling this once before, but now it truly appears that Sacha Baron Cohen has become too famous to keep making guerrilla-style comedies by going undercover and portraying buffoons for the benefit of unsuspecting targets. Either that or he simply ran out of characters from Da Ali G Show to put on the big screen. Whichever it is, The Dictator (which is dedicated “in loving memory” to Kim Jong-il) is his attempt to create a whole new comic character and fit him into a more traditional scripted comedy. I’m sad to say the fit doesn’t do him or us too many favors.
He portrays Adm. Gen. Hafez Aladeen, the supreme leader of a fictitious North African petroleum state called Wadiya that he alternately plunders and neglects. He’s brought low when he’s overthrown by his conniving, power-hungry uncle (Ben Kingsley) and secretly replaced with a dimwitted dupe of a body double (also played by Baron Cohen) while visiting New York to address the United Nations. Shorn of his wealth, connections, and trademark beard, and left alive only because of the bungling of an American assassin (a brief cameo by John C. Reilly), Aladeen takes refuge amid a community of unsuspecting Wadiyan-Americans, all of whom he personally sent into exile.
Baron Cohen reunites with Larry Charles, who directed him in Borat and Brüno. The need for character development and story arcs throws them a bit, but a bigger problem here is that they’ve misjudged their subject. Dictators aren’t a good subject for comedies, a consideration that tripped up even Charlie Chaplin. The unchecked egomania that dictators often display is indeed funny, but the torture and murder that accompany the egomania aren’t funny. Baron Cohen and Charles are fuzzy on the distinction, which means that while they give us some nice sight gags about Aladeen’s pomp (including an impressive shot of him parading down Fifth Avenue on camelback escorted by a fleet of powder-blue Lamborghinis), they also treat us to a lot of jokes about rape and pedophilia that land with a thud. The revelation that Aladeen isn’t responsible for nearly as many deaths as he believes doesn’t soften him up enough to make us feel comfortable laughing at him. It’s hard for us to get behind Aladeen’s efforts to resume power, assisted by an exiled Wadiyan physicist (Jason Mantzoukas) who wants to be back in charge of the country’s nuclear program. How do we root for this story to end?
All that would matter less if the movie had any set pieces as funny as the naked wrestling in Borat. The subplot about Aladeen improbably falling in love with a vegan feminist co-op grocer named Zoey (a butched-out Anna Faris) is an inspired, left-field idea that comes to very little. Baron Cohen’s political gibes — directed at America and the Middle Eastern regimes in roughly equal measure — aim strictly for the softest and easiest targets. They’re not even that current; there’s no hint of the Arab Spring events anywhere here. The movie sustains its laughs best during a late scene when Aladeen and Zoey help a pregnant grocery-store customer (Kathryn Hahn) give birth. Partially filmed from inside the mother’s vagina and goosed by the ad-libbing of the perpetually undervalued Hahn, this sequence is the only time when the movie approaches the scatological craziness that made Baron Cohen the envelope-pushing comic sensation that he was a few short years ago.
That comic sensation now looks hamstrung by the conventional format, and he doesn’t have the charisma to paper over this project’s shortcomings. Though the movie has a few isolated huge laughs, it mostly makes you wonder where its leading man goes from here. Even if Baron Cohen is a victim of his own success and can’t make any more Borats, he’s still a funny guy and a more than capable foil for the likes of Will Ferrell (Talladega Nights) and Johnny Depp (Sweeney Todd). While he looks for a new act, his skills and sharp sensibility mean that he probably won’t disappear. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said of The Dictator.
Starring Sacha Baron Cohen and Anna Faris. Directed by Larry Charles. Written by Sacha Baron Cohen, Alec Berg, David Mandel, and Jeff Schaffer. Rated R.