Since Sacha Baron Cohen's prank on the Oscar red carpet last February, when, dressed in his Dictator costume, he pretended to spill Kim Jong-il's ashes on TV host Ryan Seacrest, I've been worried that the movie might not live up to the sparkle of the Sgt. Pepper/Col. Gadhafi costume.
Alas, the worries were justified. There is a pattern of decreasing returns on Sacha Baron Cohen's last three feature film comedies: The outrageously funny and pointed Borat, the mostly funny and slightly pointed Bruno and, now, the rude and goofy The Dictator.
At this point, Baron Cohen may be simply too famous to play pranks on any more primitive Americans. So he dispenses with the improvisation here, sticking strictly to the script with professional actors and a broad rom-com plot, which, with some scrubbing and cleaning could work for Adam Sandler.
Baron Cohen plays General Aladeen, the bearded dictator of the fictional oil-rich North African state of Wadiya. Aladeen lives in a multi-domed pleasure palace, orders frequent executions and is obsessed with building a big pointy nuclear missile.
The film's first 15 minutes are given over to depictions of Aladeen's various absurd dictates, insisting, for example, that both "positive" and "negative" must be changed to the same word, wreaking havoc with medical diagnoses.
Other bits include a demonstration of the general's hobby of procuring American stars (a Megan Fox cameo) for photos on his souvenir wall. Then there's his favourite anti-Semitic first-person shooter Wii game, "Munich Olympics." The nastiness, of course, is calculated, along with jokes about rape and torture, to dare you to either laugh or not laugh.
The comedy begins to find a more sure rhythm when the general heads to New York to make a speech at the United Nations. His long-suffering brother (Ben Kingsley) plans to use the opportunity to have him done away with and replaced by a simple-minded lookalike in a Big Oil-friendly "democracy."
At the hotel, the dictator is startled by American customs ("Twenty dollars for wi-fi?... And they call me an international criminal!"). Kidnapped by an American agent (John C. Reilly), Aladeen is more at home, bringing his torturer up to speed on the latest instruments of the trade.
Finally, Aladeen escapes, half-naked and beardless on the streets of New York, where he finds a couple of improbable allies: A radical organic caterer and grocery store owner, Zoey (Anna Faris) who mistakes him for a tortured dissident, and a former Wadiyan nuclear scientist (Jason Mantzoukas) who Aladeen thought he had executed.
The scientist, wants to reinstall Aladeen to power to get his old job back; Zoey wants to heal and redeem him. Faris, dressed down in a boyish brunette bob and a tank top with unshaven armpits, does some of her best work here, adding some human reality to the story, but it's a challenge.
Even at just over 80 minutes, The Dictator spends far too much time on Aladeen's stream of sexual and racial insults, and while Baron Cohen's lanky physical slapstick and verbal manglings are funny, the movie begins to feel like one of the later, worn-out Pink Panther movies.
The film manages at least one of those once-seen-cannot-be-unseen images. With the camera gazing back down a birth canal, Aladeen and Zoey first accidentally touch hands while helping a woman giving birth. During the same scene, when the mother cries out in a contraction, Aladeen reflexively yells, "Tell us where your rebel bases are!"
The Dictator delivers its biggest satiric payload near the movie's end, in the form of a speech given by the not-yet-reformed Aladeen to the New York press, outlining all the advantages of dictatorship: Social control by the extremely wealthy, the freedom of the state to declare war without justification, the freedom to tap phones and torture enemy prisoners. At the preview screening I attended, many in the audience applauded, though it seems a doubtful trade-off: 75 minutes of hit and miss juvenile laughs for a few minutes of moral superiority.
The Dictator opens Wednesday, May 16.
- Directed by Larry Charles
- Written by Sacha Baron Cohen, Alec Berg, David Mandel and Jeff Schaffer
- Starring: Sacha Baron Cohen, Ben Kingsley and Anna Faris
- 2 stars