As you may already know — since most of the prerelease publicity has been done in character — Sacha Baron Cohen’s latest comic avatar is Admiral General Aladeen, despot of Wadiya, a fictitious North African country, and the subject of The Dictator. Aladeen, whose desert nation is a gilded monument to his own vanity, is a (perhaps only slightly) exaggerated cartoon of strongmen like Moammar Gadhafi and Saddam Hussein, but with certain identifying features strategically blurred.
“I am not an Arab,” he says at one point, and The Dictator, directed by Larry Charles, carefully avoids references to Islam. Is this precaution enough to prevent the movie from giving offense? Probably not. But it may be enough to turn the tables on anyone who decides to take offense, which is really the point.
There is nothing especially outrageous here. The movie’s blend of self-aware insult humor, self-indulgent grossness, celebrity cameos and strenuous whimsy represents a fairly standard recipe for sketch-comedy-derived feature films. Baron Cohen, a nimble performer, long of face and limb, is like a cross between a camel and a chameleon. He seems capable of an almost infinite range of voices and appearances, all of them outlandish, and all of them at least potentially funny.
That potential is mostly squandered in The Dictator, which gestures halfheartedly toward topicality and, with equal lack of conviction, toward pure, anarchic silliness. Aladeen, having alarmed the world with his human-rights abuses and his nuclear ambitions, is summoned to New York to address the United Nations.
There, thanks to the scheming of his Uncle Tamir (Ben Kingsley) and the ministrations of a US agent (an uncredited John C. Reilly), he finds himself replaced by a moronic double (also Baron Cohen) and forced to wander the streets like an ordinary nobody. He meets a wide-eyed activist named Zoey (Anna Faris), who gives him a job at her food co-op, and finds a sidekick (Jason Mantzoukas), who used to be one of Wadiya’s top scientists.
Directed by: Larry Charles
Starring: Sacha Baron Cohen (Admiral General Aladeen), Anna Faris (Zoey), Ben Kingsley (Tamir), Jason Mantzoukas (Nadal), Fred Armisen (Waiter) and John C. Reilly
Running Time: 83 MINUTES
Taiwan release: Today
All of which would be fine if the jokes were better. There are a few good ones, but many more that feel half-baked and rehashed. There is, for example, a long scene in a restaurant frequented by Wadiyan refugees in which Aladeen, hoping not to be recognized, invents a series of false names for himself.
Each name is a crazy mispronunciation of a sign in the restaurant — “Ladies’ Wash Room,” and the like — and every time he comes up with a new one, the camera pans over to the sign, just to make sure we understand what’s going on. And in case we’re slow on the uptake, the waiter (Fred Armisen) keeps insisting, “That’s a made-up name.” The joke is repeated at least four times.
Either this is the kind of meta-gag that tries to milk a laugh out of its own failure, or it represents a profound lack of confidence in both the material and the audience. Either way: So what?
Occasional attempts at post-Sept. 11 political satire fall just as flat, and supplying Aladeen with a love interest forces Baron Cohen to try sincerity, something for which he has no particular aptitude. Since women in his comic universe exist to be made fun of, rather than to be funny, Faris’ talents are pretty much wasted. Zoey is the target of Aladeen’s abuse, and also of the film’s scattershot misogyny, which is, like the dictator himself, conveniently disguised. When Aladeen calls her a “lesbian Hobbit” or recoils at the sight of her unshaved armpits, we’re really laughing at what a jerk he is. Aren’t we? Sure we are.