Sasha Baron Cohen as Admiral General Aladeen/Goathearder
Sir Ben Kingsley as Tamir
Anna Faris as Zoey
Jason Mantzoukas as Nadal
Directe by Larry Charles
Once there was a brilliant comic filmmaker who ignored the typical rules his colleagues played by and produced some of the great film comedies of his time, often poking fun at the social ideas of the world around him. For his first move away from his typical style he decided to take on his largest target yet, a brutal dictator whose protestations of peace were obviously at odds with his actions and who was ripe to be taken down a peg. He concocted a plot wherein he would play both the dictator and the simpleton double who replaces him as the ruler and is sent out into the world he thinks he commands.
Obviously I'm talking about Sasha Baron Cohen's "The Dictator."
Okay, no I'm not. I'm talking about Charlie Chaplin and "The Great Dictator," but the surface similarities are obvious. Those similarities end just under the surface, of course, and it should surprise no one that Sasha Baron Cohen is no Charlie Chaplin. What he is, is possessed of a particular genius for social satire which he makes work through a performance artist's devotion to his act regardless of context. It helps that he picks extremely easy targets, like America's schizophrenic reaction to homosexuality in "Bruno."
He's picked another in "The Dictator," taking a collection of traits of some of the most well known modern tyrants – Hussein, Qaddafi, a little bit of Kim Jong-il – and exaggerating them just enough to be able to ask the question of how could developed nations ever have treatied with people like this as if they were normal, rational individuals?
An easy point well-made is still well-made, even if the target is large, and Cohen and frequent collaborator Larry Charles have shown an understanding that real jokes need real teeth to be truly funny.
The big change this time around is the context. Cohen and Charles have left behind the mockumentary style of their previous efforts, where the jokes mostly focused on making fun of people who did not realize they were being made fun of, and moved into the purely fictional realm.
In this realm Cohen is Admiral General Aladeen, a composite dictator of typically oil rich North African nation (the fictional Wadiya, slapped more or less on top of Eritrea) who is trying to secretly militarize under the UN's nose despite being exceptionally incompetent. After his uncle (Sir Ben Kingsley, who seems willing to take any job for money) has him kidnapped and replaced by an imposter, Aladeen is left wandering the streets of New York, trying to find some way to reclaim his place before his beloved Wadiya is turned into a democracy and taken away from him forever.
Mostly what it is, is an excuse for Cohen to spout blisffuly offensive statements to everyone around him. This sort of thing worked, more or less, in his previous films because you could believe the reactions of real people when faced with this sort of ridiculousness. "The Dictator," fixing more directly to tried and true Hollywood comedic formula, is less successful. Instead of reactions you can believe in, you get people like Zoey (Anna Farris), the absurdly intellectual-feminist-vegan store owner stereotype Aladeen ends up working for and slowly bonding with despite himself.
She, and almost everyone else except former nuclear scientist turned sidekick Nadal (Jason Mantzoukas), let everything Aladeen says and does pass right over them. Because to question the premise would be to end the movie and while Cohen is willing to do almost anything in the name of his craft, being truly original isn't one of those things.
And even at a zippy sub-90 minutes, "The Dictator" only has so much satire to go around, with much of it contained in a blistering monologue towards the climax which should make any self-respecting State Department official of the last 15 years squirm uncomfortably.
He's had to fill the rest of the film with some traditionally American clichés, including Aladeen's unwilling romance with Anna Faris' Zoey and a preponderance of low-brow anatomical humor that may or may not be your cup of tea. Cohen's devotion to going further than the other guy makes even some of his low-brow work arrive on target – particularly a recurring sight gag about a decapitated head – but he misses as often as he hits. And when he misses, he misses WIDE. The resulting film swings rapidly between biting political satire and the worst of Adam Sandler autopilot "comedies."
When "The Dictator" is funny, it's really funny. And when it's not funny, it's really, really not funny. Ultimately, trying to squeeze Cohen's particular sense of humor into typical Hollywood claptrap is a bit like trying to push a square peg into a round hole, and works about as well.
Cohen's mockumentary and social satire tastes may not be everyone's cup of tea, but there can be no doubt he knows what he's about in that milieu. The formula of "The Dictator" is unfortunately, painfully, not a good fit. Off with its head.