In The Dictator, no real-life, innocent bystanders are accosted, and that may just be the most significant flaw of Sacha Baron Cohen’s latest, an uncharacteristically arid and unfunny potboiler that makes Borat seem worlds away. For the first time since 2002’s Ali G Indahouse, Baron Cohen forgoes the mockumentary style that made him a global superstar, and opts instead for ultra-produced, narrative-humor traditions. He emerges with something that calls to mind the worst of Mike Myers, and lacks the utilized vigor of mad happenstance that colored his last two Larry Charles collaborations. In terms of being on trend, it makes sense that Baron Cohen would want to change his formal tune, as the 15 minutes for faux docs are most certainly up. But in the past decade, no mock-doc star has pushed buttons and tickled ribs better than the man behind Borat and Brüno, and it’s something of a crime that The Dictator, a base-level provocation at best, feels like thousands of other filmic expressions of gross-out, bad behavior. Its dolly- and crane-operated polish points toward an acquiescence to Tinseltown mores, which until now Baron Cohen hovered cheekily above.
Ever-accompanied by Punjabi riffs on tracks by the likes of Dr. Dre, the chameleonic Brit is familiarly offensive as Admiral General Aladeen, the absurdly affluent, morally bereft dictator of Wadiya, a fictitious North African country. A true Baron Cohen creation, Aladeen is introduced in his element before commencing his fish-out-of-water saga, giggling to citizens about his “peaceful” plans for uranium, playing an elaborate Wii game set at the Munich Olympics, and adding Megan Fox, playing herself, to a list of conquests that also includes Oprah, Lindsay Lohan, and Arnold Schwarzenegger. With ample pop-culture references in place, Aladeen makes his way to Manhattan to address the U.N., and in keeping with his odd compulsion to star in dirty comedies, Sir Ben Kingsley plays the top aide who double-crosses his bearded boss. Nearly offed by an in-cahoots ambassador (John C. Reilly) armed with torture gear and slurs, Aladeen braves the New York streets to find he’s been replaced by a featherbrained double, whose signing of a new democratic constitution will mean mucho wealth for Wadiyan traitors. Clean shaven by force, Aladeen is unrecognizable to the super liberals he soon meets, including Zoey (Anna Faris), the owner of an eco-friendly shop, whose green thinking and feminism merely mark the tip of the far-left iceberg.
From casting on down, there’s not much good to say about The Dictator, a comedy cashing in on the “mournful” losses of so many of its subject’s actual counterparts (an early intertitle reads, “In memory of Kim Jong-il”). There are at least two hilariously uncomfortable bits that reach the heights expected of Baron Cohen (a helicopter tour that feeds on white terror and an extended gag with a severed head), but most of the jokes are painfully reaching for laughs they don’t warrant, like news coverage of Aladeen’s impostor drinking urine, prostitutes having their double-Ds milked, and ongoing cracks about closeted gay celebrities that, even in the wake of the John Travolta sex scandal, feels embarrassingly infantile. Faris, bless her gifted heart, is wrong for her role, which requires her to play a straight woman who’s simply not in her repertoire. Kristen Wiig, who flirted with taking the role, can handily carry off deadpan ignorance, but Faris, who needs to straddle the line between amused love interest and offended idealist, can’t give the movie the poker face it needs. Responding, as Baron Cohen’s co-stars must, with a mix of decorum and disgust in regard to his character’s off-color remarks, Faris employs her usual wide-eyed exasperation, which, in this politically charged context, seems especially cartoonish.
Of course, beneath all his shocks and R-rating fulfillers (look for vagina-vision and talk of disposing female fetuses), Baron Cohen delivers helpings of democratic commentary, packaging his message in the sort of self-villainization that’s worked wonder for folks like Stephen Colbert. In this new film, he not only raises the notion that dictatorships are one more thing misunderstood by America, but that the American government is tyrannical too, with manipulative media, rigged elections, and society controlled by a rigid one percent. The barbs of Baron Cohen’s cultural critique are surely felt, but they’ve also never seemed so filed down, suffering, like the rest of the film, from adherence to convention. Bound to be one of the year’s biggest comedy letdowns, The Dictator doesn’t so much stir hot-button issues as showcase a great satirist off his game.