‘Dictator’ tweaks broadly and carries a big shtick
The despot in “The Dictator” is a tall, fit, flamboyantly bearded goofball — Admiral General Aladeen (Sacha Baron Cohen) — who lords over a fictitious little North African country called Wadiya. Aladeen’s misdeeds are denounced internationally — he’s ordered the murder of thousands and is months away from achieving weapons-grade uranium, which, he winkingly announces, will be only for peaceful purposes.
These early scenes have an easy whimsy. Cohen turns the character into a conceited ham with a taste for showmanship and a disdain for the competition. (He says Mahmoud Ahmadinejad “looks like a snitch on ‘Miami Vice,’ ” and he’s right.) There’s a flashback explaining how Aladeen called for the murder of his top nuclear scientist for disagreeing with him over the proper shape of a missile.
At some point, democracy threatens to take hold, and Aladeen heads to New York for a speech at the United Nations but winds up captured and tortured by a US agent (John C. Reilly) and spat back onto the streets of Manhattan amid anti-Aladeen protests. Anna Faris plays Zooey, a vegan-feminist protester with Doc Martens and a boy’s haircut, who takes him to her Brooklyn food co-op. She has no idea that the man who now calls himself Allison Burger is actually Aladeen. Her cluelessness is almost credible. Without the beard and dressed in a pink T-shirt tucked and belted into baggy shorts, Cohen looks like John Turturro playing a gay Aladdin.
Until the co-op scenes, “The Dictator” is a cheap farce about despotism. Mocking the egos of the world’s oppressors is a worthy aim, easy targets though they might be. But the movie hasn’t really figured Aladeen out. It’s much more interested in topical riffs. There’s a good, appalling gag involving a video game based on the slaying of the Israeli Olympic team at the Munich Olympics and some tired stuff about how it’s lonely at the top. We see Aladeen pay Megan Fox for a tryst followed by a shot of a wall of Polaroids of his other famous conquests — Oprah! Ellen! Ah-nuld! But you can feel the movie looking for a reason to exist, for some tension. That doesn’t happen until the co-op stuff, where the clash between Aladeen’s chauvinism and Zooey’s feminism generates the sharp contrast you need for this sort of comedy. The movie gets good mileage from Aladeen’s political incorrectness in such a liberal-do-gooder paradise. It’s the political nightmare version of “Roman Holiday.” Obviously, he develops an attraction for this woman with the au naturel armpits whom he calls “Hairy Potter.”
Cohen wrote “The Dictator” with Alec Berg, David Mandel, and Jeff Schaffer. Larry Charles directed it, and it differs from Charles’s previous movies with Cohen, “Borat” and “Bruno,” which were largely improvisational comedies in pursuit of cultural friction. The suspense in those movies resided in whether Cohen’s exploitative approach to comedy would work without seeming desperate or cruel. The new movie is mostly a scripted comedy with glimmers of improvisation, but it doesn’t have the ambition to even risk seeming cruel. Charles gets to use fancy crane shots and lots of quick editing, but you miss the sustained abandon and mischief that made for ecstatic moviegoing with “Borat” and bits of “Bruno.”
The script does find a way to conflate the blithe and the distasteful, as when Aladeen follows his former physicist (Jason Mantzoukas) to a proudly anti-Aladeen eatery in New York’s Little Wadiya neighborhood. Aladeen looks like Aladdin, but not enough to avoid arousing suspicion. What you feel as the patrons begin to rise up is the undying rage these despots engender. It’s a scary-funny, sad-funny scene that goes on just long enough for the comic throat-slashing gestures Aladeen makes throughout the movie to evoke these human consequences.
Cohen and Charles have surrounded themselves with spry comedians, like Faris, Mantzoukas, and Kathryn Hahn, who’s in the movie’s best scene, a gross, grossly amusing baby delivery at the co-op. There’s even a role for Ben Kingsley as Aladeen’s nefarious number-two. Mostly though, you notice that with a script Cohen and Charles are less sure of what they want to do. As a comedy about despots, the movie has forebears in everything from Charlie Chaplin’s “The Great Dictator” to that underrated Richard Dreyfus vehicle “Moon Over Parador.”
But “The Dictator” lands somewhere between wan Mel Brooks and good Adam Sandler, whose “You Don’t Mess With the Zohan,” about an Israeli Special Forces soldier at a hair salon, manages to strike better contrasts with vaguely similar culture differences — it’s a nuttier movie, too. Cohen and Charles offer a lot of admittedly witty observations, but they don’t build into anything bigger or smarter. They’re too broad. We get a frisky Chinese businessman, who’s beside the point, and Aladeen’s idiot double, whom Cohen also plays. Or in striving for offensiveness, the jokes are just badly lazy, like turning part of the “I have a dream” speech into “Thank Aladeen, I’m oppressed at last.”
With the nincompoop immigrant Borat and the gay fool Bruno, we knew what Cohen was going after: the surprising comedy of discomfort. What’s the point of this dictator? And why mire him in so many incomplete or inconsequential ideas? You’re left with an inert, politically neutral movie, a satire that can’t bring itself to properly satirize anything.