In The Dictator, Sacha Baron Cohen plays a fish out of water, acclimating himself to American culture and offending everyone in sight while he does it. You could begin that sentence with, “In Borat,” or “In Bruno,” and not make any other changes. Therein lies the problem with The Dictator: Unless Baron Cohen really throws a Hail Mary of a racist joke or something, this movie is going to be pretty familiar.
He does complete a few of those passes — if we’re being generous, maybe half a dozen — but almost nothing else in The Dictator lives up to his obvious but recently dulled comedic gifts. Admiral General Aladeen (Baron Cohen) is a ruthless despot, the Supreme Oppressor of the North African country of Wadiya. After an assassin’s bullet kills his double, Aladeen insists that his second-in-command (Ben Kingsley) hire another lookalike in time for the Admiral General’s trip to the United Nations.
Upon his arrival in New York, Aladeen is kidnapped and tortured, his beard removed so nobody will recognize his dead corpse. The plot to assassinate him was hatched from within, and his most trusted advisor plans to use the new double on official state business, namely to sell off oil reserves to the highest bidders. Aladeen escapes and, now without his trademark facial hair, is mistaken for a Wadiyan dissident by archetypal peacenik Zoe (Anna Faris).
While Baron Cohen does use a more standard movie narrative this time around, the blast radius from The Dictator still comes from foreigner humor. Borat was a tourist; Bruno was a homosexual who squeezed into hot pants and then into intolerant situations; Aladeen is a blatant racist and sexist.
If someone pulling their eyes into a slant to mock Asians is funny to you, or if you think a video game recreating the murder of Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics is LOL, then have at it — those are foundational jokes in The Dictator, and most of the others never really rise above that. The majority are childish, garden-variety racism, so they can’t really even be offensive, but they’re boring, outdated and far beneath a guy who could be the next Peter Sellers if he wanted to be. They’re just placeholders for where the good jokes would be if Baron Cohen cared anymore.
Unnecessary cameos abound (Megan Fox, Edward Norton); there’s a whole lot of silliness surrounding Aladeen snaking his way back to power; and every once in a while, a redeeming one-liner buys Baron Cohen another couple minutes of your trust. But a great comedy? Not even close.
For one shining moment, however, the comedian soars. And he doesn’t say anything funny. His stinging satire of American democracy as a dictatorship, which comes far too late to save the film as a whole, is an example of how on-point Sacha Baron Cohen can be when he’s motivated. So where was that guy while they were filming the rest of this movie? Maybe that’s just his double.
The Dictator Sacha Baron Cohen, Anna Faris, Ben Kingsley, directed by Larry Charles, rated R, 83 mins.