Sacha Baron Cohen’s success has been to his detriment—and ours. After the blockbuster success of Borat and to a lesser (though still significant) extent, Brüno, the wickedly funny, insightful, ballsy performer can no longer pull off his signature move: confronting society with his bumbling, offensive characters to expose ignorance and prejudice. His shtick is genius, but it depends on his anonymity—it doesn’t work if his targets are in on the joke.
Such is the case with The Dictator, Baron Cohen’s latest collaboration with director Larry Charles. In it, Baron Cohen plays Admiral General Aladeen, the despot of the North African country of Wadiya, an Uday Hussein type with a funny walk who carries a gold gun and surrounds himself with hot-babe bodyguards/booty calls. Here is a brilliant addition to Baron Cohen’s arsenal of boobs, a terrorist leader more concerned that his nuclear missiles are pointy (because that’s how they’re shaped in the Warner Bros. cartoons he watches for research) than that they work.
When Aladeen is called to the United Nations to account for his weapons-of-mass-destruction program (which is about as developed as Iraq’s was when the United States declared war on it), he arrives in New York on the back of a camel and flanked by a caravan of cyan Lamborghinis. His official visit is cut short, though, when he is kidnapped by an amateur torturer (John C. Reilly) in a nefarious plot orchestrated by his uncle and trusted advisor Tamir (Ben Kingsley). Tamir replaces the Admiral General with a double who declares Wadiya a democracy so that Tamir can pocket the country’s oil profits.
Aladeen escapes, but not before his captor shaves him, and sans beard he is unrecognizable as the Supreme Leader of Wadiya. Mistaken instead for a dissident, he’s taken in by Zoey (Anna Faris), who offers him a job at her feminist vegan co-op. The setting is ideal, of course, for Baron Cohen’s signature brand of trenchant comedy, and it’s satisfying to see him take smug Brooklynites to task with the same zeal he has rednecks and socialites in the past. But this is scripted comedy, not a mockumentary, and without an authentic interaction (as authentic as an interaction can be when half of the equation is playing a character), these exchanges lose their power.
In fact, a large part of The Dictator is shoehorning Aladeen into awkward situations, an approach that works in the faux-doc format but feels forced here. When Aladeen insists that his replacement beard must come from the facial hair of a great man, it’s for no other reason than to insert the character into a staid African-American funeral so that wackiness can ensue. When a woman goes into labor on the floor of the store, it’s a cheap setup for an icky punchline about a lost cell phone. Meanwhile, there’s a weird recurring gag equating celebrities with whores. It’s to Baron Cohen’s credit that a couple of A-listers participate in their own skewering, but it’s a thread that’s more puzzling than pointed.
Of course, Baron Cohen is an equal-opportunity offender, and The Dictator not only suggests the benefits of a totalitarian regime (Aladeen whips Zoey’s co-op into shape) but culminates with a critical rant on the nature of democracy, at least America’s version of it. In this moment, he’s at his confrontational best, but this time his marks are in the audience, not on-screen. The truth loses its power when we view it through a window rather than in a mirror held up to our faces.
Director: Larry Charles
Writers: Sacha Baron Cohen, Alec Berg, David Mandel, Jeff Schaffer
Starring: Sacha Baron Cohen, Anna Faris, Ben Kingsley
Release Date: May 16, 2012