Sacha Baron Cohen has built his career on being outrageous and pushing the boundaries of good taste in order to get a laugh, but in the past his humor has largely relied upon real-life scenarios and how people react to his socially provocative characters. Cohen is coming off a surprisingly nuanced supporting turn in Martin Scorsese’s Academy Award nominated Hugo but is now putting his skills (and appeal) to the test in his first fully-scripted lead comedic role. The Dictator certainly shows the talented Cohen’s ability to carry a film, but unfortunately falls flat in enough places to feel like a step sideways, rather than forward.
Admiral General Shabazz Aladeen is the dictator of the fictional Republic of Wadiya and is also an insecure, violent idiot – think Joffrey from Game of Thrones but as an adult put into a slapstick comedy and you have an idea of how irresponsible and childish Aladeen is with his power. He kills for inane reasons, cheats at everything and is perfectly content to use his enormous wealth to commission female celebrities for one night stands. When democracy comes to Wadiya and his second in command Tamir (Ben Kingsley) decides to overthrow and replace him with a body-double, the dictator finds himself penniless and without his identity in New York City.
One of the strong points of Cohen’s solo comedic film career for me has been the underlying messages that come from the social situations his characters create with real-life people. Bringing to light the blatantly homophobic general public in Bruno or the xenophobia of a post-911 nation in Borat added a layer of intelligence and depth to what appeared to just be gross-out humor and male nudity jokes on the surface . While The Dictator does end up making some pretty humorous and poignant jabs at government and western culture, it doesn’t have that same punch in scripted form.
The cast is pretty strong and definitely carries some of the weaker moments of the film. Anna Faris (Scary Movie) is plucky and cute as the hippie love interest of Aladeen, but is forced to rely on some pretty lame toilet humor, like the constant hairy arm pit jokes the film never hesitates to fall back on. Jason Mantzoukas (FX’s The League) was a pleasant surprise and quietly stole most of his scenes as Aladeen’s frustrated nuclear scientist-turned-refugee hiding out in urban America. Ben Kingsley, on the other hand, continues to collect paychecks late in his career and doesn’t seem particularly invested in his role in The Dictator, but still adds a bit of class to the cast.
Director Larry Charles (Borat, Bruno) really puts it all on his star Cohen’s performance to make or break the film, and Cohen succeeds (to an extent) by bringing just the right amount of bullheaded stupidity and doofus charm to General Aladeen, walking a line between being appalling and yet almost sympathetic. But for every hilarious gag Charles pulls off, like replacing hit songs with Middle Eastern versions in the soundtrack, there are horribly stupid sequences like the tediously long child birth scene (with point-of-view shots from inside the womb) that ruin the momentum of the funny.
The Dictator will probably satisfy long-term fans of Sacha Baron Cohen and definitely has enough laugh out loud moments to not be a complete failure, but too many attempts at lowbrow humor and a script that hops from scathingly hilarious to insultingly bad make the film a somewhat frustrating experience. I feel Cohen is destined for greater things than this movie, and hope he spaces out these types of roles with more interesting career choices, rather than rely on the crutch of doing films like The Dictator.
With jokes about terrorism, raping teenagers, and throwing newborn babies into the trash can, The Dictator is offensive, insulting, and painfully unfunny, sidestepping political satire in favor of toilet humor and stereotypes. It’s hard to believe that this film was hatched from the brilliant minds behind Borat and Bruno. Sacha Baron Cohen and director Larry Charles are far too intelligent for a film like this, and audiences should be, too.