With Borat, Sacha Baron Cohen immediately became one of the most important comedians on the planet. It effortlessly threw just about every stereotype known to western culture into a fictional character, and out of it came an effortlessly hilarious and disturbing mockumentary that is just as political as it comedic. Baron Cohen seemed destined for comedic greatness, but with his fourth Character Feature (and his first completely fictional one since Borat), The Dictator, what may have seemed like a promising career now looks almost entirely unremarkable.
The Dictator very much fits in within Baron Cohen’s character work. Like Borat, Bruno and Ali G, The Dictator’s Admiral General Aladeen is a larger-than-life specifically created to exist outside of political correctness. He’s born into power over a fictional country (no one gets the Kazakhstan treatment this time around) in which he lives out his wildest dreams in his golden palace. But things change when his conniving second-in-command (Ben Kingsley) replaces the Admiral with a lookalike, and dumps the former leader in New York City with nothing but the clothes on his back.
The first twenty minutes of the film are the most successful. They’re nothing but an excuse for Baron Cohen and his co-writers to come up with the most ridiculous stunts for an absolutely corrupted leader to explore. Baron Cohen has gotten exceptionally good at behaving in ways that are at once naturally abhorrent and hilarious.
What sets The Dictator aside from Baron Cohen’s previous hits is that it’s a traditional narrative, with a three-act structure in which his Aladeen is supposed to take on meaningful change, something that the screenplay completely fails to convincingly achieve. That alone does not damn a comedy, but there’s zero comedic friction between Baron Cohen and his costars – Anna Faris and Jason Mantzoukas. None of the characters are defined, relatable or likable.
That wasn’t a problem before for Baron Cohen. While Borat and Bruno both had plots, they were more practically a series of sketches involving one outrageous character. Watching real people try react to him cautiously created for fascinating viewing excitement.
But there’s no such depth or excitement in The Dictator. Even the jokes are uninspired – too often they’re so hugely sophomoric it’s hard to even think of them as jokes – they feel more like dry exaggeration. Like when the title character takes a shit to get his weight down, or learns, as a grown man, about masturbation. The jokes are so huge they’re not even stupid-funny, they’re just stupid.
Baron Cohen is a tremendously funny performer, and as you can see from his few scenes in last year’s Hugo, he can be successful regardless of the genre he’s working in. But The Dictator is a lazy fish-out-of-water story that aspires to do nothing but give the actor another character to add to his repertoire. And its supreme lack of ambition nearly takes it to depths of failure Adam Sandler has come to define.
by Ian McFarland