Man, what happened to Sacha Baron Cohen? It’s hard to believe that the razor mind behind Da Ali G Show and Borat has reduced himself to… this. Each new outing with Cohen playing a kooky, un-PC foreigner has been a huge disappointment of diminishing returns. First Bruno misfired, and now taking his schtick out of the real world into the fictional realm hasn’t improved anything. The worst part is that recent events have primed The Dictator for the great potential to be interesting. Over the past year, we’ve watched many actual dictators fall, so the cultural conversation is ready for what this movie is talking about. Except it isn’t concerned with adding anything worthwhile to that conversation. It just wants to make the laziest jokes it can.
Cohen is Admiral General Aladeen, ruler of the Middle Eastern nation of Wadiya. He’s basically Saddam Hussein, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and Kim Jong-il combined, with a few other notable oppressors thrown into the mix as well. One thing the film gets pretty much entirely right is the surreal way that these tyrants are simultaneously so cruel, petty, oblivious, and excessive. There’s not a single outsized thing about Aladeen that a real despot hasn’t actually done, right down to his all-female bodyguard force (Gaddafi did it first).
Except the movie isn’t really about Aladeen as a dictator. That gets thrown out something like fifteen minutes in, when his second-in-command (Ben Kingsley) launches a coup by switching him with a double, leaving him stranded in New York City. The story is mostly Cohen doing a far lesser Borat routine. Come to think of it, The Dictator is essentially a remake of Borat, except without everything that made the former an all-time great satire. There’s some idea of an arc for Aladeen, with him finding a heart through interacting with an organic market owner played by Anna Faris, but it’s so malformed and perfunctory. It checks off all the beats of character development (“okay, now he’s slightly nicer… now he’s learned a lesson”) without actually fulfilling those beats.
Here’s what made Borat work: despite his extreme racism and general backwards-ness, Borat is basically a really nice, well-meaning guy. Cohen used his ignorance to expose the ignorance in people who were supposedly more refined than himself. That’s what makes Borat such a terrific satire, and one of if not the greatest takedowns of Bush-era America. But Aladeen is not Borat. Aladeen is evil. Now, that could still work, but this script throws him into mostly the same situations as Borat, having him bounce off regular joes. That’s not a good fit for the character. There are tantalizingly fleeting glimpses of a movie that understood how to make this work. At the climax, Cohen as Aladeen gives an incredible, devastating speech about America today. It uses Aladeen in the right context, in a forum with other world leaders. If the entire movie had stuck to this conceit, it could have been much better (it’s also the movie that the trailers promised us).
Because here’s the thing: this movie as is isn’t actually a satire, for the most part. Satire illuminates real world issues by inflating them to extremes. As I’ve already pointed out, nothing Aladeen does is any more over-the-top than how real dictators act. Now, true dictators are so extreme that it may really be impossible to satirize them. But why would you? Everyone already knows that they’re bad news. The potential for satire in this concept lies in using the ridiculousness of despotic behavior to expose how first-world culture isn’t so different from life under tyrannical regimes. Instead, there may actually be more (very weak) jokes at the expense of granola-type liberals than at anything substantial. It’s so disappointing.
It’s not even that The Dictator is especially or aggressively bad; it’s just exceptionally mediocre. I laughed a good amount during each individual scene, but none of those scenes cohere into anything interesting or memorable. And even those standalone scenes don’t really work. Director Larry Charles, who’s always shown a rather loosey-goosey approach to structure, seems to have lost all sense of it here, being unable to construct the smallest sequence correctly. Just as one example, one moment has Aladeen, working at Faris’s character’s shop, catch a thief red-handed. It somehow devolves into a joke about Osama bin Laden… which then peters off into nothing… and then the scene ends. Every good joke is a miniature story, and since Charles and Cohen couldn’t get even the smallest things such as this right, it’s no surprise that they couldn’t pull off this film.
Maybe Charles and Cohen simply got tired of clever satire, and just wanted to use The Dictator to string together third-rate ethnic jokes. That’s fine. It’s way less interesting, but it’s fine. But they couldn’t do even do that right. Maybe Borat was just lightning in a bottle, and Cohen should drop the offensive foreigner angle and stick to musicals (I think he’ll be great in Les Miserables and the upcoming Freddy Mercury biopic, for the record). It’s all “maybes” when you look at a film that had so much potential but bungled it utterly.
CBR Break Down:
How it was viewed: Theater
Running time: 83 minutes
Starring: Sacha Baron Cohen, Anna Faris, Ben Kingsley, Jason Mantzoukas
Directed by: Larry Charles
Recommend viewing: Wait for Netflix instant
Why you should see it: Ummm… The Daily Show couldn’t give you your fill of making fun of Middle Eastern rulers.
Why you shouldn’t see it: Because Borat is RIGHT THERE on the shelf. Come on, when was the last time you watched it? It’s as good as you remember, really