In a move away from the prankumentary form he mastered with “Borat” and then botched with “Bruno,” Sacha Baron Cohen goes for fully scripted provocation with “The Dictator.” The moments of great inspiration, which usually arrive when Baron Cohen is aiming for brutally offensive laughs, get tempered by failed gags and a generally straightforward, mainstream-comedy directorial approach by Larry Charles, a creative decision that cannot measure up to his innovative work on “Borat.”
Boil it down, and “The Dictator” is a fairly obvious splice job of the 1988 Eddie Murphy comedy “Coming to America,” Mark Twain's “The Prince and the Pauper,” and especially Charlie Chaplin's 1940 Adolf Hitler satire, “The Great Dictator.” And that's fine, because the originality of the situation in a Baron Cohen film is not as important as the comedic execution, but “The Dictator” is uneven, going long stretches in which the gags would not seem out of place in an especially tedious Mike Myers film.
The result is a few spectacular moments surrounded by so-so setpieces in this story of Adm. Gen. Aladeen of Wadiya, the tyrannical leader of a fictional East Africa country that is the scourge of the United Nations for its human rights abuses and its aggressive posture on the world stage. Aladeen (Baron Cohen) is a master of trivial executions and lying on a mass scale, the leader of an Islamic nation who regularly pays Hollywood stars (such as Megan Fox, playing herself convincingly) to share his big, round bed. He's the kind of leader who garners 99 percent approval ratings from his citizens but must keep body doubles on hand to catch the bullets during regular assassination attempts.
Aladeen's chief of staff Tamir (Ben Kingsley) takes the opportunity provided by recruiting the latest body double to stage a palace coup. Just before Aladeen's scheduled address to the U.N., the dictator is abducted, stripped of his trademark beard and dumped in an outer borough of New York. As Tamir plays puppet master with comically stupid double (also played by Baron Cohen) and prepares to shift Wadiya to a faux democracy beholden to oil companies, Aladeen winds up in the care of Zoey (Anna Faris), the owner of a struggling health food co-op in Brooklyn. He finds ample use for his dictatorial skills among the store's staff, and along the way is forced to confront his attitudes and his reputation outside his forcefully maintained echo chamber.
The best laughs come from Aladeen's fish-out-of-water experience in Brooklyn, particularly when in the company of Zoey, an energetic and energized liberal activist who could potentially help him get back into the tony hotel where Tamir is keeping the fake dictator. But Aladeen's road to enlightenment is challenged when he runs into his former weapons expert Nadal (Jason Mantzoukas of “The League”). Nadal is part of a wickedly funny and grossly offensive plan for Aladeen to regain his original appearance and power — it's one of the standout sequences in “The Dictator,” along with a baby delivery scene that sets a new but instantly memorable low for amateur obstetrics.
But those instances in which Baron Cohen reaches “Borat” levels of outrageousness get counterbalanced by the fact that almost everything else in “The Dictator” is done by the numbers. With the exception of a serrated, terrorism-evoking scene in a helicopter, the political satire is never trenchant enough to leave much of a mark, and the film cannot help but suffer in comparison to “Borat” for the simple reason that everyone is in on the joke, and certain characters have to play stupid in order to move the plot along.
It is completely understandable why Baron Cohen and Charles, the great “Seinfeld” writer-producer who helped Larry David set a standard for improvisation-based TV sitcoms with “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” might shy away from their old formula. Their follow-up to “Borat,” the gay fashion sendup “Bruno,” crossed the line from uncomfortable into intolerable, the zone where nervous laughs go to die. Furthermore, once Baron Cohen had made his way through places like Oklahoma City as Borat and fooled people once, as Roger Daltrey and a former world leader said, you can't get fooled again.
Stripped of the documentary elements that made him a household name, Baron Cohen now leans on scripted offense and visual gross-outs to pry laughs from the audience. This comedy has its moments, but it also proves that his points were better made when delivered with the sharpness found in the often-shocking real world around him. With “The Dictator,” Baron Cohen and Charles just took their wacky creation and sent him to New York. It's the same setup as “The Smurfs,” really.
— George Lang
Starring: Sacha Baron Cohen, Anna Faris, Ben Kingsley, Jason Mantzoukas. (Strong crude and sexual content, brief male nudity, language and some violent images.)