There’s obviously nothing funny about the atrocities committed by some of history’s most notorious tyrants. So why have these men proven to be such a surprisingly fertile source of comedy? Whether it’s (Puppet) Kim Jong-il crooning forlornly about being lonely (actually “ronery”) in Team America: World Police or Adolf Hitler being saluted by a chorus line of high-stepping stormtroopers in The Producers, there’s certainly a precedent for mocking these reviled figures. With The Dictator, Sacha Baron Cohen appears to be taking his patented inappropriateness to a new level.
Cohen — the English actor, comedian and professional provocateur — stars as Admiral General Haffaz Aladeen, ruler of the oil-rich and fictitious Republic of Wadiya. (Muammar Gaddafi and Saddam Hussein are clearly major influences.) The trick to making this sort of (potentially-abhorrent) comedy seems to be focusing on the outrageous personalities of these tyrants, rather than all the horrible things they’ve done. As a result, Aladeen is racist, sexist and too many other negative “-ists” to list, but the movie portrays him as a bearded buffoon who isn’t even remotely dangerous. (Though try telling that to the dozens of people Aladeen orders to be executed over trivial offenses.) When he is summoned by the United Nations to address concerns about his country’s nuclear program, Aladeen travels to New York, where he embarks on a life-changing journey involving a boyish feminist (Anna Faris), a severed head and a few celebrity cameos.
The fact that there’s even a plot to summarize already sets The Dictator apart from Cohen’s previous mockumentary collaborations with Borat and Bruno director Larry Charles. (Remember when people thought everything in Borat was completely real?) This may be another Cohen/Charles team-up, but I actually think his performance in The Dictator is closer to his strong character work in stuff like Hugo and Sweeney Todd than his completely immersive creations in Borat and Bruno. Of course, that’s probably because instead of seeing Cohen interact with “real” people and revealing their prejudices, we’re watching him recite a script on-screen with other movie stars. (There’s still plenty of room for improv, and The Dictator really comes alive when Cohen is riffing, particularly with Jason Mantzoukas as his scientist sidekick.)
Since the outrageous Aladeen is very much front-and-center all the time, Cohen’s famous co-stars are mostly stuck playing the boring straight man. Faris — a talented comedic actress— is simply asked to sport some unfortunate body hair and absorb all the movie’s jokes about feminists and liberals. Meanwhile, Oscar winner Ben Kingsley has so little to do, I spent most of his screen time wondering how long Cohen waited before asking him to be in this ridiculous movie while they were both on the set of Hugo. Only John C. Reilly — as a shady American who helps set the plot in motion — left any sort of a lasting impression. On the other hand, the more traditional narrative of The Dictator allowed Cohen and Co. to set up a truly twisted romantic comedy plot. For example, in You’ve Got Mail the girl unwittingly falls for the guy who intends to destroy her bookstore. In The Dictator, the girl unwittingly falls for the guy who intends to destroy democracy in his country. Gotta love those darn romantic comedy misunderstandings!
I’ve refrained from talking about the comedic bits and gags in The Dictator because they’re best experienced if you go in with a blank slate. (And also because I just had lunch — seriously, there are separate poop and penis sight gags within a few seconds of each other.) I can say that the subtitled conversation in a helicopter — featured in most trailers — is still funny in the feature film. I also enjoyed the movie’s shout-out to Kim Jong-il and the Arabic versions of songs like “Let’s Get It On” and “Everybody Hurts” on the soundtrack. The best moment in The Dictator, however, is Aladeen’s climactic speech that doubles as a blistering takedown of America’s government.
I wish the movie unleashed that sort of sharp edge a lot more often. Cohen is an equal-opportunity offender and an undeniably daring performer. Like his previous work with Charles, The Dictator has bits that hit or miss depending on your sensibilities. The misses are pretty painful, like a baby delivery bit that was shoehorned into the story and felt like a DVD deleted scene. The difference here is that the successful gags didn’t quite reach the genius-level heights we’ve seen from Cohen before. Even though the movie clocks in at just 83 minutes, it feels like the filmmakers were stretching for material.
The Dictator gets off to a promising start and delivers some solid laughs along the way. However, when you consider the outrageousness of the people Cohen is channeling, I actually think he played it (relatively) safe.