Sacha Baron Cohen is a Gaddafi-like strongman (though, really, not particularly strong or terribly mature; more of a strongman-boy) in The Dictator, a scripted comedy cowritten by Cohen.
Aladeen (Cohen) is the not-so-dear leader of the oil-rich North African nation of Wadiya. To keep international weapons inspectors at bay, he heads to New York City to talk to the UN. Before he can address the general assembly, however, he’s kidnapped. Clearly, he’s supposed to be killed, but he escapes, minus his beard, and finds that his right-hand-man Tamir (Ben Kingsley) has passed off Aladeen’s body double (whose usual job is just to get shot in the head in Aladeen’s place during one of the many assassination attempts) as the dictator. Tamir’s plan is to bring “democracy” to Wadiya — really more of an oligarchy with the goal of selling off the country’s oil. Because he lacks his beard and looks like a particularly grimy street person, Aladeen isn’t sure how to convince people of his true identity. He gets some help from Zoey (Anna Faris), a protestor whose day job is as the manager of an eco-conscious gender-bias-free co-op, and from Nadal (Jason Mantzoukas), a scientist whom Aladeen sentenced to death but who now lives in a New York neighborhood full of Aladeen-haters.
Zoey is a crunchy-granola, pit-hair-having, feminist-literature-reading Occupy-type protestor whose short hair and unflattering wardrobe of too-long shorts have Aladeen referring to her as a boy until he finds himself starting to fall for her. (And then he starts leaving hints about the wonders of Nair and antiperspirant.) Aladeen is an outline of a spoiled oil-nation prince blended with the stereotype of North African dictators and with a thick coating of anti-Semitism. Tamir is that character Ben Kingsley plays when he’s just there for the check. This movie is so dependent on to-the-bone black-outline, broad-strokes caricatures that you expect to see them in one of those mall illustrations with oversized heads, riding on bikes and holding their favorite food. Where Cohen’s improv-heavy movies have a kind of rough, anything-can-happen feel that is exciting, here the akwardness and forced-offensivenss just feel stale, like a Saturday Night Live sketch that has gone on hours too long. More that half the jokes feel like they are essentially the same joke — a surprisingly toothless joke about awful/stupid North African dictators. (In a Fresh Air interview, Cohen talked about specifically not calling his character an Arab dictator and staying away from any reference to religion. It’s a small detail that makes the comedy feel like it’s dancing around what it really wants to say.)
Remember the “your War of Terror” national anthem scene in Borat? Cohen is not a guy who pulls his punches, but here the comedy doesn’t have that edge (with the exception of a nice little rant toward the end about the benefits of a dictatorship). Occasional moments of “hey, this feels like something” (a conversation between Nadal and Aladeen about why Yiddish words are so useful) are drowned out by big stretches of hackiness, like an extended scene where Aladeen (for no good reason, really, other than the lady-parts-related jokes) helps a woman deliver a baby.
Faris doesn’t help matters — her comedy skills are solid and she can bring a lot to a part, but when the comedy itself isn’t so great, (see the Scary Movie movies) she can also heighten the ham factor.
Cohen’s willingness to be outrageous and to go the extra mile had me eager to enjoy the comedy that fit with the trailer and all the pre-movie hype. Turns out the promotion for The Dictator — Cohen’s run-in with Ryan Seacrest as the Oscars, for example — was funnier and more interesting than the movie itself. C-
Rated R for strong crude and sexual content, brief male nudity, language and some violent images. Directed by Larry Charles with a screenplay by Sacha Baron Cohen, Alec Berg, David Mandel and Jeff Schaffer, The Dictator is a hour and 23 minutes long and distributed by Paramount Pictures.