Title: The Dictator
Director: Larry Charles
Screenwriters: Sacha Baron Cohen, Alec Berg
Starring: Sacha Baron Cohen, Anna Faris, John C. Reilly
In The Dictator, perhaps defeated by his own growing notoriety, Sacha Baron Cohen turns away from the Candid Camera gimmick that made Borat, Bruno, and the TV show that spawned them such thorny, polarizing sensations. It seems like a shrewd move: the logistical challenges aside, pranksters have a short shelf life, and Bruno had already begun to show diminishing returns. But it also leaves a void that Baron Cohen can’t seem to quite fill.
Say what you will about Borat, but it took tremendous courage and fortitude to stage a naked wrestling match in a room filled with bewildered conventioneers, and so forth. Baron Cohen’s ability to keep a straight face during some of the escapades was awe-inspiring. And the often conciliatory, sometimes even conspiratorial responses of the real folks with the misfortune to run into the gleefully racist, sexist, and homophobic Kazakh added a productively uncomfortable dimension to the shock comedy.
All of that is gone, and it’s not clear how much use there is for what’s left. The Dictator unveils a character who’s more than a little similar to Borat: another delusional, anti-Semitic Middle-Easterner on a whirlwind tour of the States. Where Borat was a destitute farmer, Alladeen is a luxuriantly bearded autocrat from a fictional oil-rich nation, but the two have many of the same ideas about women, Jews, and western culture. The plot finds Alladeen stripped of his trademark facial hair and shoved onto the sidelines as his scheming vizier (Ben Kingsley) works to enrich himself and — horrors! — bring democracy to his homeland at Alladeen’s expense. Our hero has to thwart the evil plot with the help of only a feminist liberal hippie (Anna Faris) and an old associate whom Alladeen had tried to have executed.
The first half hour of the 85-minute film is miserably unfunny (Baron Cohen and his director, Larry Charles, have zero facility with set-up and exposition), and I dug in for a lengthy slog. Matters improve significantly once The Dictator finally gets to the stuff we came for — viz., the increasingly outrageous and deliberately offensive comic set pieces, several of which are very amusing indeed. Some of the best jokes are blindingly obvious, and work because of how far Baron Cohen takes them; others, such as one involving a woman in labor (Kathryn Hahn, always a welcome sight), work because they were clearly devised by a madman. Either way, when The Dictator is on, it can be a pretty singular experience.
One problem is that this doesn’t happen often enough: the film’s sketch-like structure dictates that when something’s not working, all we can do is stare at it glumly. Another is that the more conventional narrative format reveals a fundamental confusion. What isThe Dictator about, exactly? Baron Cohen is equally mean-spirited toward everyone, but to what end? The last 10 minutes hedge and reverse course a good half dozen times to ensure that the film doesn’t take any sort of honest position on any of the issues it lampoons — American foreign policy, Islamism, democracy in the Middle East, etc. The Dictator having been stripped of the attention-grabbing reality-show dimension of its predecessors, we are left wondering just what it is that this supremely gifted comic is trying to express.
— Eugene Novikov