by Steve Habrat
Perhaps my expectations were too high going in to comedian Sacha Baron Cohen’s latest shock comedy The Dictator, a political satire that doesn’t ever really go for the throat. I was hoping for a comedy on the level of 2006’s Borat and 2009’s Bruno, a film with jokes that really left a mark and left you saying “ouch.” With The Dictator, Cohen parodies such real life dictators as the late Kim Jong-il and Muammar Gaddafi, both who were constantly making news and creating a stir throughout the world. One would expect Cohen to have a ball riffing these two individuals and he clearly is having a good time parading around in a fake beard, but this offering seems to just go in circles for eighty minutes. I kept waiting for something to truly shock me and outside of a joke made about women attending college and a climatic rant that will have any liberal-minded audience member jumping up in applause, I was left unmoved by Cohen’s effort. There are still some chuckle worthy moments and some gross-outs that lean more toward gross rather than funny, all of which you’d expect from The Dictator but even still, it doesn’t wield as much power as it would like.
The Dictator introduces us to Admiral General Aladeen (Played by Cohen), the dictator of the North African Republic of Waydia. The Supreme Leader, as Aladeen is often called, loves to oppress his people, pay Hollywood movie stars to sleep with him, order executions on those who get on his bad side, and develop nuclear weapons. Upon making an announcement that leads the world to believe he possesses advanced nuclear weapons, the United Nations Security Council declares that they will intervene militarily unless he shuts the program down. Aladeen and his uncle, Tamir (Played by Ben Kingsley), decide to travel to the UN Headquarters in New York City to address the council. Upon his arrival, Aladeen is kidnapped by a hired hitman, who shaves his iconic beard and then accidentally unleashes him on the streets of New York. Aladeen then finds himself replaced by a dimwitted double that will sign a document making Waydia a democracy. With the help of an activist named Zooey (Played by Anna Farris), Aladeen begins trying to stop the signing of the document and in the process, develops a soft spot for Zooey and democracy.
At a brief eighty-three minutes, The Dictator doesn’t linger long enough to become too outrageous. Throughout those eighty-three minutes, it seemed like the nervous studio was holding Cohen back from really finding a groove. I can remember seeing Bruno for the first time and just feeling the air getting sucked out of the packed theater while multiple disgusted audience members bolted for the door. It appears that Paramount was determined to not let something like that happen with The Dictator. I wish that they had let Cohen go and do his wild and crazy thing, which would have helped the film out immensely. It should be noted that The Dictator is also structured like a normal Hollywood movie rather than the hidden camera footage of Cohen messing with real American citizens. Even the subject matter itself, which plays with our fear of terrorism in this post 9/11 world, seems to be a bit dated and almost cheap, like Cohen could have come up with something better to hit us over the head with.
As far as Cohen’s performance is concerned, he is immersed in this character 110%. He ad-libs with the best and he does think up a few stinging zingers, mostly the one about women attending college that really pissed off one girl in my showing. Oh, and he does deliver a good one about Dick Cheney that had me in stitches. For the first time, Cohen seems a bit too eager to make us gag over making us think, something that was put first in both Borat and Bruno. I liked it when Cohen really put himself in danger to make us laugh (Remember the rodeo sequence in Borat?), but also to show us the ugly sides of America, the ones we hear about but rarely ever see. Here it is all about defecating off of a building, masturbating, and yes, putting a cell phone in a woman’s vagina (you read that correctly). He also goes for easy and juvenile jokes, ones that Adam Sandler would settle for on what he perceived as one of his good days. Yet Cohen is as magnetic as always and he does make us feel for this lonely, lonely dictator.
As far as the rest of the performers are concerned, Ben Kingsley has little to do besides stand next to Cohen and mutter lines to side characters and John C. Riley shows up briefly as the hitman hired to kill Aladeen. Riley delivers some of the best lines The Dictator has to offer and then he is gone in a flash. Cohen, on the other hand, works well with Anna Farris, who plays things straighter than I imagined she would. She usually can’t resist taking a violent turn into wackoville but with The Dictator, she keeps things nice and liberally normal. Jason Mantzoukas shows up as a nuclear weapons developer Nadal, who Aladeen had thought he had executed. It should be said that Cohen and Mantzoukas have little comedic chemistry and have a hard time playing off each other. Sadly, they only briefly click.
For a film that could have had so much bite, The Dictator rarely ever bears its fangs. Instead, it gets hung up on body fluids and jokes about terrorists, throwaway jokes that I never thought I’d see Cohen fall back on. Yet I did enjoy parts of The Dictator and thought certain moments of it were really clever. A pair of political analysts who pick apart public appearances by Aladeen and his advisors are an absolutely hysterical riff on the ones we see on television, the ones who find so much in so little. Overall, I can say that while I am disappointed in this paint-by-numbers studio comedy, it was still a good time for a crass laugh or three. Yet I was left wishing that Cohen had raised the bar, been more offensive, and pushed the envelope just a little bit further. When it comes to his trio of mainstream comedies, The Dictator is the runt compared to the rough and tough Borat and Bruno. Oh well, at least the runt is kind of sweet and cute despite all the urine and seaman.