In their past collaborations, actor Sacha Baron Cohen and director Larry Charles mined for comedy by placing a disguised Cohen among the general public to capture the organic reactions of ordinary people to Cohen's most outrageous characters, the Kazakhstan reporter Borat and the gay Austrian fashionista Brüno.
Baron Cohen and Charles hedge their bets with The Dictator, an entirely staged comic satire in which Baron Cohen plays General Admiral Haffaz Aladeen, a despot who rules the North African country Wadiya with an iron fist, an addled brain, and an ego the size of the Sahara.
After a dedication to the late Kim Jong Il, we witness Aladeen's origin story, in which he inherits the leadership of Wadiya in his infancy, and proceeds to blow his country's budget on his own lush lifestyle... oh, and a nuclear program. (The dedication to North Korea's deceased despot is no accident.) When America makes warlike noises, suggesting he will be deposed, Aladeen accepts an invitation to address the UN to give them a piece of his already overtaxed mind. But upon his arrival, Aladeen's own uncle (Ben Kingsley) places his nephew in the hands of an American assassin (John C. Reilly, uncredited) and replaces him with a simpleton shepherd (also played by Baron Cohen).
Aladeen escapes with his life (but without his bushy beard) and is promptly mistaken as a Wadiyan dissident by a granola-ingesting organic grocer named Zoey (Anna Faris), who somehow misinterprets Aladeen's hateful invective and falls for the lug. At the same time, Aladeen meets a former Wadiyan nuclear scientist who offers the dictator some help in returning to his throne.
Presumably, Baron Cohen and Charles were inspired by a couple of satiric precedents. Tonally, the movie recalls Team America, Trey Parker and Matt Stone's ingenious super-animated parody of gung-ho Yankee propaganda.
Plot-wise, there is a resemblance here to The Great Dictator, Charlie Chaplin's courageous lampoon of Hitler (before the U.S. had entered the war), which likewise featured a case of mistaken identity, when a Hitler-like despot changes places with a Jewish barber.
Neither comparison reflects well on The Dictator. Baron Cohen and Charles only sporadically win laughter with their anything-goes humour, particularly in a bit in which Aladeen comes into possession of the head of a deceased Harlem drug lord. (It doesn't bear explaining.) Where Team America routinely reduced audiences to puddles of politically incorrect laughter, this movie's occasional guffaw doesn't quite cut it. Working against The Dictator: Aladeen's abrasive, anti-Semitic, misogynist, racist invective wears one down after a short while.
Comparisons to The Great Dictator are even less flattering. The film may not be considered one of Chaplin's classics, but Chaplin's stance against Hitler was genuinely valiant and the film's final antiwar speech is a piece of political rhetoric for the ages. Given similar opportunity at the finale of The Dictator, Baron Cohen's pro-dictatorship rant is a clever piece of doublespeak that gleefully suggests America isn't the paragon of democracy it pretends to be, but it's no more resonant than anything you would see on The Daily Show any given weeknight.
Selected excerpts from reviews of The Dictator.
The easily offended will be appalled. The rarely offended may be appalled. But they'll have to stop laughing long enough to realize it.
-- Elizabeth Wietzman, New York Daily News
The Dictator does for Sacha Baron Cohen what The Love Guru did for Mike Myers.
-- Rene Rodriguez, Miami Herald
Most of the bits are funny, but the film that connects them is flat, the performances -- especially Cohen's-- incomplete, under-developed and poorly cut together.
-- Roger Moore, McClatchy Tribune News Service
The Dictator is funny, in addition to being obscene, disgusting, scatological, vulgar, crude and so on.
-- Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun Times
Fleet, funny, and smart enough to not overstay its welcome, it's a commentary-coated R-rated comedy with supreme box office potential.
-- Nick Schager, Boxoffice magazine
Clearly, Baron Cohen is a smart, gifted and versatile actor; it's time for him to stretch his abilities and dictate to himself a new kind of challenge.
-- Christy Lemire, Associated Press
Not all of it is particularly amusing, but most of it is invigoratingly offensive.
-- Robbie Collin, Daily Telegraph
It doesn't, in truth, offer much of a twist on the genre. It does, however, deliver laughs and weapons-grade offensiveness.
-- Peter Bradshaw, Guardian
-- Compiled by Shane Minkin
Starring Sacha Baron Cohen, Anna Faris and Ben Kingsley
Grant Park, Kildonan Place, Polo Park, St. Vital, Towne
21/2 stars out of five