Sacha Baron Cohen goes on the offensive in The Dictator, a political farce smudged by comedy and romance.
The tale of how Admiral General Aladeen became President Prime Minister Admiral General Aladeen is not one for the ages. As told by The Dictator, it is basically the story of a flabby political farce about oppressive narcissism meandering uncertainly into romantic comedy.
Sacha Baron Cohen not being your go-to guy for rom-com is one reason to find it amusing. Another is the notion of rapacious world leader as portrayed by a chronic boundary overstepper. Neither is quite reason enough, but the movie does have its funny moments, and also grace enough to get itself over in less than an hour and a half.
Hailing from the fictive oil-rich North African nation of Wadiya, Aladeen lives large among gold-plated Humvees and nuclear ambitions, by day ordering capricious executions and by night adding snapshots of celebrity sexual conquests to his wall of Polaroids. (Quick, mute cameos are among the movie’s deadlier weapons.) And yet, for all his prowess, he goes woefully uncuddled.
Then he goes to New York, where he finds himself betrayed by a senior advisor (Ben Kingsley), kidnapped by an American agent (John C. Reilly), replaced by a simpleton (Baron Cohen again), reunited with a sacked scientist countryman (Jason Mantzoukas) who’s now a Mac Genius (“Mostly I clean semen out of laptops,” the disgruntled former subordinate reports), and accommodated by the peace-activist manager of Brooklyn co-op (Anna Faris), who neither shaves her armpits nor seems to mind being called “lesbian hobbit” or “little boy in a chemo wig.”
This is a lot for our dictator to take in, and many possibilities glitter before him. Democratization is afoot, at least in the sense that Baron Cohen is an equal-opportunity vulgarizer: With this brazen autocrat thus ensconced in a stronghold of the smugly progressive, the way is paved for duelling caricatures of entitled, adolescent-minded tyrants. Dully, the result is a draw —more like a knockoff of some Adam Sandler movie, with requisite tugs at heartstrings and other body parts. (Although admittedly the masturbation montage, complete with footage of Forrest Gump in physical epiphany, is inspired.)
The director is Larry Charles, who also directed Baron Cohen in Borat and Brüno before this, mostly by turning him loose like a bull in the China shop of how we live now. The Dictator, too, is situational and vaguely improvisatory, but also obviously scripted and rehearsed. It’s culture-clash ambush with the safety left on. Adding a despot to Baron Cohen’s stable of blustery imbeciles seemed nervy and necessary, but the resulting movie does not. Earlier, his way of taking aim at too-easy targets made us complicit in their exploitation, and that’s just the sort of tension this effort needs and lacks.
Although dedicated “in loving memory of Kim Jong Il,” The Dictator also recalls Charlie Chaplin, who in 1940 saw history coming and sezied a very specific opportunity with The Great Dictator. Both movies culminate in big speeches—Chaplin’s a portentous refutation of earlier silence, Baron Cohen’s, oppositely, a rally for autocracy that’s really a sly critique of debased democracy. In this toothless, talking-points satire we see how history advances: from the heart-on-sleeve to the nearly heartless.