The latest provocation from comedic gadfly Sacha Baron Cohen, The Dictator starts from the template of slapstick-as-political satire immortalized by the Marx Brothers and Charlie Chaplin, and attempts to improve on it with jokes about masturbation and Osama Bin Laden’s bathroom habits. Cohen combines parts of Saddam Hussein, Muammar Gaddafi, and Kim Jong Il (to whom the film is “dedicated”) in creating Admiral General Hafez Aladeen, the reigning despot of the fictional oil-rich nation of Wadiya. Unlike the eponymous characters of Cohen’s previous films Borat and Brüno, Aladeen was not created to prank unsuspecting civilians by posing as a clueless amateur documentarian. Instead, he’s the clueless star of a riches-to-rags tale precipitated by his uncle and top aide Tamir (Ben Kingsley), who uses Aladeen’s appearance before the United Nations as an opportunity to usurp his nephew and install a look-alike in his place. When Aladeen narrowly escapes death by criticizing the torture methods of his overly sensitive assassin (a brilliant John C. Reilly), he begins his ruthless ladder-climbing anew – this time at an organic grocery store run by left-wing radical Zoey (Anna Faris) – as he scrambles to stop Tamir’s imposter from signing a new constitution that distributes Wadiya’s oil wealth to a handful of Western corporations.
The Dictator is Cohen’s first entirely fictional effort since 2002’s poorly-received Ali G Indahouse, and his first project in over a decade that’s not based on one of his characters from Da Ali G Show. And while Aladeen’s scripted antics lack the live-wire feel of his heavily improvised mockumentaries, Cohen’s humor is no less outlandish thanks to the tyrant’s hubristic appetites and bottomless bigotry. (“So, are you having a boy or are you having an abortion?” is a typical Aladeen-ism.) Overall, though, the jokes are scattershot and wildly uneven. It’s more like a loose collection of sketches than a proper film, with only about half of them landing on the good side of bad taste. A fake media clip package introducing Aladeen gives way to a clumsy mistaken-identity plot that Cohen and director Larry Charles are only intermittently interested in pursuing. As such, worthwhile sequences like Aladeen’s hostile takeover of operations at Zoey’s store get a bit lost amongst pedestrian filler involving Aladeen’s dimwitted, goat-herding double and the various schemes that Aladeen and his former top nuclear scientist, Nadal (Jason Mantzoukas), hatch to depose him.
Cohen also spends a frustrating amount of time going after soft targets – Zoey is as much of a left-wing radical stereotype as Aladeen is a facist cartoon, and Faris is given little to do besides regurgitate liberal talking points and look horrified when Cohen spouts Aladeen’s childishly abhorrent rhetoric. Every now and then, the film scores points with references to the institutional hypocrisy that allows free nations to criticize dictators while ignoring the less obvious sources of oppression within their own borders. But even that complex idea is handled with the same fleeting concern as the next dick joke, as if Cohen and Charles can’t wait to set up the next joke in their unfocused menagerie of terrorist-themed humor. Even so, the movie is still an occasionally funny, if fleeting, diversion. One just wonders what Cohen could do if he had fully committed to making a political satire with character-based humor instead of relying on disjointed sitcom antics. The Dictator has a point to make, but no story to tell.