I’m not sure where to start with The Dictator: Do I delve into unfunny gags involving sex with a severed head or human excrement falling from the sky, or do I bemoan that the film’s players lack the depth of even a Saturday Night Live sketch character?
I can’t help but feel that criticizing Sacha Baron Cohen’s latest embodiment makes me seem humorless, as his entire shtick is to shock — and he generally does so in strangely endearing fashion, a la Borat. I certainly don’t take issue with a gifted comedic actor blurring the lines of propriety (heck, I count myself among the few who enjoyed Your Highness). Whatever the weapon of choice, if it hits the mark, I’ll laugh. Unfortunately, the jokes in The Dictator are poorly calibrated and utterly off-target. And then, to add insult to injury, bits are stretched beyond their ho-hum resonance. The movie doesn’t so much enrage as it exhausts.
Director Larry Charles reteams with Baron Cohen, following 2006’s Borat and 2009’s Bruno, to bring audiences Admiral General Aladeen, dictator of the African nation Wadiya. Aladeen is a bumbling, self-involved and ultimately vicious ruler — he makes “cut his throat” motions to his omnipresent guards behind the back of virtually every adviser — who’s summoned to New York City to answer to the United Nations regarding his stance on democracy (and the possibility that he’s harboring nukes, a subplot that vanishes after the first act).
When Aladeen arrives, he’s kidnapped by an appointed American member of his security detail (John C. Reilly in a bafflingly short-lived role that attempts to pump up the shock-factor dialogue), forcing his chief adviser Tamir (Ben Kingsley, who’s given nothing to work with, and therefore plays his role lifelessly straight) to replace the dictator with a double instructed to make Wadiya a democratic nation. Aladeen, unrecognizable after being shorn of his trademark beard, is tossed into the mean streets of New York City, where he falls in with Zoey (Anna Faris), a young protestor of Wadiya’s oppression. Without knowing his true identity, she invites Aladeen to work at her crunchy granola-esque Williamsburg grocery store.
What ensues is a fight for Aladeen to regain his throne, restore dictatorship to his country and never grow or change as a human being, despite his humbled position. Not only that, but what’s the point, exactly? Aside from one utterly hilarious monologue wherein Aladeen eviscerates the American democratic system, this movie seeks to prove time and again what we already know: Dictators are bad people. There’s really no reason to care about Aladeen, who’s essentially a caricature. He’s ignorant, insulting, entitled and without charm, yet he also seeks post-coital affection from paid sex partners, and — eventually (inexplicably) — falls for a woman he continually calls a “fat Justin Bieber.” It’s all very confusing, nodding to (but never uncovering) layers of humanity in someone who ultimately showcases absolutely none.
Even more frustrating is that his supporting characters play along. Faris’ Zoey is a women’s studies graduate and a human rights activist, yet she invites (and eventually enjoys) the company of someone who incessantly degrades her and her employees and is of no assistance whatsoever. Her patient, kind demeanor is a canvas on which Baron Cohen is supposed to paint, but it simply becomes borderline baffling in the wake of weak humor. Even Mother Teresa would’ve kicked this guy to the curb (but not before he made incessant jokes about seeing her face in every baked good at the local market).
And that’s not even counting an ex-member of Aladeen’s staff, Nadal (Jason Mantzoukas), once sentenced to death by the dictator, but spared and now living a separate life in New York. Although in his bitterness he founded the Death to Aladeen restaurant in an outer borough, he quickly (and without much warrant, aside from a need for “buddy comedy” sketches) changes his tune and lends Aladeen help. A helicopter tour that pairs the two with a typical Midwestern couple nods to the usual 9-11 stereotypes as Aladeen and Nadal are misunderstood while discussing fireworks over the Empire State Building in their native language. Instead of cutting the scene with the shocked faces of the other passengers (which would’ve been ineffective enough, considering the been-there-done-that humor), the conversation wages on and on until the Americans are screaming. As with this example, the movie is filled with the comically diluted results of being all too pleased with its own mediocre jokes.
I’ve always liked Sacha Baron Cohen — he’s incredibly talented, but his turn in last year’s Hugo left me wanting more. I want to see him try something new, and I’m hopeful that his lackluster Admiral General Aladeen may be just the push he needs. Die-hard fans of his style might find a few things to enjoy in The Dictator, but in Aladeen his talents are wasted on one-note, politically incorrect farces that seek to shock without any intelligence or originality based in their humor. The Dictator turns into one long recycled joke, “The Admiral General Aladeen Show,” and in the end inadvertently succeeds in showing the audience what it’s like to be oppressed.
The Dictator opens Wednesday nationwide.