Even the beard looks fake.
Sacha Baron Cohen, the tall, spindly improvisational comic genius behind Borat and Da Ali G Show, has a way of burrowing into his characters. Part of the brilliance of Borat is his unwavering commitment to the Kazakhstani journalist’s gigantic moustache and cheap suit, living for so long inside the role that a lot of bystanders still won’t stop talking about how bad he smelled. Baron Cohen’s milieu is guerrilla theater, springing his racist, monstrous caricatures on unsuspecting camera subjects, gradually coaxing out the worst in people for our shock and awe, not to mention amusement.
You won’t find any of that in The Dictator, Sacha Baron Cohen’s safe, scripted folly and the first picture of this kind he’s attempted since 2002’s woebegone Ali G Indahouse (a film so lousy it never quite secured an American theatrical release). I understand that Borat ’s massive popularity precluded another stunt pulled on passers-by, with 2009’s Brüno offering ample, sad evidence that a comic can only pull such rabbits out of his hat exactly once. Still, this is extremely dire material—feeling more like one of those Saturday Night Live movies from the early 1990s than the work of our sharpest contemporary satirist.
Cohen, who also co-wrote the screenplay, stars as General Admiral Aladeen, the thick-witted despot of a fictional, oil-rich North African country called Wadiya. (Tellingly, the movie bends over backward more than once to remind us that he’s “not an Arab.”) A pampered baby with a penchant for ordering the execution of his countrymen whenever he’s not busy paying for sex with American celebrities, Aladeen is a hysterically ignorant, petulant child. Suffering from the egomania endemic of most tin-horn despots, he’s fixed Wadiya’s Olympics and Golden Globes so he always comes out on top, and even changed a hundred or so words in the country’s dictionary to match his surname.
So far, so funny. An opening title card dedicates the movie “in loving memory of Kim Jong-il,” and The Dictator initially mines a familiar brand of comedic discomfort, with Baron Cohen’s usual jaw-dropping, anything goes one-liners pushing the provocation into transgressive territory.
But then that stupid plot kicks in. On a trip to New York City where he plans to tell off the United Nations, General Admiral Aladeen is kidnapped and tortured, losing his enormous (fake-looking) beard in the process. Replaced with a body double by his nefarious second-in-command (Ben Kinglsey doing nothing with a role that offers even less), Aladeen finds himself broke and adrift in lower Manhattan.
So, of course he winds up working at a vegan food co-op run by Anna Faris’ wide-eyed, hairy-armpitted hippie. A sterling scene-stealer in too many terrible movies, Faris is given little to do here besides smack her forehead in frustration at Aladeen’s all-encompassing ignorance. Their interactions are awful, to say nothing of the forced love story that’s being shoved down our throats. Turns out this dictator just wanted to be cuddled?
Teaming up with a nuclear scientist (Jason Mantzoukas), Baron Cohen’s dictator suffers from every tired fish-out-of-water comic scenario you’d expect from a Mike Myers movie. Director Larry Charles’ flat sitcom staging is enough to make one long for The Love Guru.
Baron Cohen’s particular brand of humor is so pushy and unpleasant, it clangs against The Dictator’s wan setups and hackwork scenarios. A Wadiyan chorus singing “Everybody Hurts” or “Let’s Get It On” in a made-up language doesn’t change the fact that the movie’s lazy enough to use both songs as punch lines. As if aching to top Borat ’s already legendary naked fist-fight, Baron Cohen lays on the gross-outs, accidentally pooping on somebody’s head, and filming an entire sequence from a POV inside a woman’s vagina. Such moves stink of desperation, and what’s even worse is that none of them particularly funny.
Occasional shocking one-liners remind you that we’re in the presence of a pushy genius, but Aladeen’s simply not enough of a character to sustain these slender 83 minutes. Starting with that phony beard, he’s Baron Cohen’s least fleshed-out creation, existing purely as a delivery system for crude zingers and seriously lazy story set-ups. A jarringly insightful late-movie monologue calling out the U.S. for being disturbingly similar to dictatorships gets buried beneath the love story subplot blather.
The thrill of Da Ali G Show or Borat was in watching Baron Cohen insinuate his outrageous caricatures into deadly serious surroundings. The Dictator has no such nerve, existing in an alternate cartoon reality where the satire doesn’t sting.
Director: Larry Charles
Starring: Sacha Baron Cohen, Anna Faris and Ben Kingsley