Sacha Baron Cohen found fame by playing elaborate practical jokes on celebrities, politicians, and ordinary citizens through ridiculous alter egos such as Kazakhstani telejournalist Borat. Cohen succeeded so well that he even pranked himself in a way, as potential victims can recognize him and his tactics from a mile off. Originally an ingenious, improv-based guerilla humorist, Cohen may have to settle for a more conventional career as an international comedic movie star.
Certainly Cohen's latest project, The Dictator, hews closer to Hollywood conventions than his previous documentary-style comedies anchored by Borat and his Austrian fashionisto Bruno. Cohen and his previous big-screen accomplices, director Larry Charles and longtime co-writer Dan Mazer, develop a typically outlandish, extravagantly accented persona but drop him into a more familiar cinematic formula. Cohen's confrontational instincts chafe against the more rigid structure, but The Dictator elicits enough laughs from beginning to end for Cohen to retain his fans' allegiance.
The Dictator's first act seems to have already been played out in the mass media, as Cohen made publicity stunts at the Academy Awards and elsewhere as Admiral General Aladeen of the fictional, oil-rich North African nation Wadiya. Aladeen borrows the worst qualities of many modern-day tyrants, particularly the late Muammar Gaddafi, leavened with some more comedic traits, like a ZZ Top beard, permanently pointing index finger, and knee-jerk sexism. A pop-savvy audience member already "gets" Aladeen by the time the film starts.
Early scenes show how Aladeen indulges his most base desires by paying A-list celebrities for sex and ordering the executions of anyone who disagrees with him. The plot gets rolling when the Admiral General travels to New York to address the United Nations, but his scheming right-hand man (Ben Kingsley) replaces Aladeen with an idiotic double (an Adam Sandler-worthy idiot man-child also played by Cohen) and plots an assassination.
Aladeen survives the attempt on his life but ends up abandoned in New York, clean-shaven, in borrowed clothes and with no way to prove his real identity. He finds an unlikely savior in Zoey (Anna Faris), an anti-Aladeen activist who offers him a job at her "vegan feminist nonprofit collective." As a spoiled, bigoted political strongman amid big-city leftists, Aladeen inevitably misapplies his depraved values to everyday situations. Zoey mentions the local rape center and Aladeen asks, "You have a center for rape here?" as if hearing about a hot new restaurant.
Watching The Dictator, you suspect that Cohen and company believed they were satirizing fish-out-of-water comedies and opposites-attract romances, but the film seldom proves subversive. At times The Dictator hints at some clever notions. When Zoey, full of righteous indignation, chews out a police officer, Aladeen starts to fall for her as a kindred spirit — suggesting that a certain extreme, infuriated liberalism can look an awful lot like totalitarianism. Rather than follow such an idea to its conclusion, The Dictator spends more time contriving sketch-like situations, such as a hostage Aladeen mocking his sadistic captor's outdated methods: "Nobody likes a backseat torturer, but come on." At times Charles' direction hits the punch lines and reaction shots too hard, when a more deadpan approach would better suit the already over-the-top premise.
The Dictator may be a sloppy comedy with more than its share of comedic duds, but it prevails through sheer quantity of sight gags, creative insults, and slapstick gross-outs. Watching the film resembles sticking with an episode of "30 Rock" that might be built around lame sub-plots, but worth watching on a laugh-by-laugh basis. With The Dictator, Cohen reconfirms his live-wire talent and suggests that he remains one of contemporary comedy's supreme leaders.