Director Larry Charles and co-writer/star Sacha Baron Cohen once again have something social to slice at. Like their Borat and Brüno, The Dictator is aggressive while ever-making sure to be hilarious, playful and brief. And while this is a much safer movie than the duo has made previously — and ultimately less good than the aforementioned titles — I imagine this is easier for masses to digest than, say, Brüno’s extended close-up of Cohen’ flaccid penis gyrating in a propeller motion.
This isn’t to say that Cohen has (if you will pardon the expression) “gone soft.” Grandma may have liked that quirky train station guard in Hugo, but Hollywood hasn’t made Cohen any less outraged with the world. These guys are pondering the bastardization of both democracy and autocracy around the globe, but never forget to man-handle the decapitated head of a civil rights leader or occasionally splash urine on UN officials. The Dictator is out for yucks, or sometimes merely to make you say, “yuck.”
Cohen stars as Aladeen, the General Admiral of the fictional North African nation of Wadiya. He has a remarkable palace and a depressed population full of brainwashed worshippers, but is seemingly loveless beyond the celebrities he pays to sleep with him (Megan Fox and Lindsay Lohan, among many other Polaroids). Aladeen’s premier Tahir (Ben Kingsley) may love him least of all, and he is actively plotting the overthrow of the General Admiral.
At Tahir’s encouragement, Aladeen travels to New York City to address the United Nations. He is quickly kidnapped by a U.S. Secret Service Agent (John C. Reilly), and is de-bearded before escaping what was going to be a proper assassination. Sans beard, the now-unrecognizable Aladeen cannot get inside to deliver his speech, and quickly learns a new democratic constitution is being drafted for Wadiya by his dim-witted body double (also played by Cohen).
After being confused for an anti-Aladeen protestor, the General Admiral is unknowingly taken in by Zoey (Anna Faris), a feminist, vegetarian lefty who agrees to hire him at her organic food store. He also stumbles upon the “Little Waadeya” neighborhood, which is teaming with people he was sure he’d ordered executed. It is there where he teams up with unsuccessful executee and former Wadiyan nuclear scientist Nadal (Jason Mantzoukas), and the two set out to return Aladeen to his throne.
Along his journey, Aladeen will fall in love with Zoey, but this is neither a surprise nor a reason anyone is watching. In the tradition of many great slapstick storytellers (read: Marx Brothers or the Zucker Brothers), there are flights of fancy that are only tangentially related to the plot. Most of these gags work (due in no small part to the talents of Faris and Kingsley, as well as the slew of A-list cameos), and those who aren’t entertained will likely be repulsed.
Yet despite all the talent, The Dictator left me wanting more. It was funny, but not as funny as Borat. It was bold, but not as bold as Brüno. The previous films from the Charles/Cohen teaming were essentially strung-together improv sketches born out of obscene spontaneity with mostly unknowing participants, and scenes could go on longer because they merely continued the torture of the witless targets surrounding the funny man. The trouble here is that too many of these jokes seem recycled, or just go on for a minute longer than they probably should. A friend of mine called The Dictator “70% funny”, and I’d say that assessment is as accurate as it is fair.
Note: As with Brüno and Borat, Cohen’s flaccid penis makes an appearance. This gives the aforementioned unmentionable more produced credits than most SAG actors, and adds credence to the reality that nudity will always ensure you have a business in the pictures.
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