General Aladeen, the latest creation from firebrand comedian Sacha Baron Cohen, is depressingly similar to Borat and Brüno. All three have silly accents and unconventional attitudes toward human sexuality. They are foreigners, and their prejudice informs how they interact with ordinary Americans. Most importantly, their lack of basic tact is a deliberate attempt to make the audience feel uncomfortable. But what makes The Dictator, Cohen’s latest, different from Brüno (TMT Review) and Borat is that he can no longer include live pranks in his work. He’s simply too famous to surprise anyone. Without any opportunity for improvised insanity, Cohen relies on the belief he can still shock an audience. After six years of this stuff, the only shocking thing is how he persists in trying to make this material still seem fresh.
Waydiya is the made-up country where Aladeen serves as leader. Thanks to his unlimited wealth, he has the power to change his country’s language and to call Hollywood’s sexiest starlets for impersonal one-night stands. Anyone who questions his methods receives an immediate death sentence. But when Aladeen flies to New York to speak before the United Nations, his head of security Tamir (Ben Kingsley) stages a daring coup. He swaps Aladeen with a double (also played by Cohen), whisking the real general to Brooklyn and shearing his trademark beard. In order to stop Tamir from bringing democracy from Waydiya, Aladeen enlists the help of Nadal (Jason Mantzoukas), a former nuclear scientist, but in the meantime, Zoey (Anna Faris) the food co-op manager enlists Aladeen as an employee. His draconian policies help revitalize the business.
The Dictator fires at all the familiar targets. His character is a patriarchal anti-Semite, surprised whenever American pluralism clashes with his limited worldview. This leads to lazy running gags — Aladeen jokes that Zoey looks like a little boy because she has short hair — and forced comic set-pieces. A trailer for The Dictator already reveals the sequence in which Aladeen and Nadal board a helicopter with a pair of hapless tourists, and its artificial construction kills their attempt to provoke. As with most of the screenplay, written by Cohen and three others, context conforms to punchlines when it should be the other way around. Director Larry Charles tries to imbue the formula with energy through transgressive sight gags (for instance, we watch Aladeen assist in childbirth from inside a woman’s body), yet the anything-goes approach only shows how the team is running out of ideas. Gross-out humor rarely inspires laughter when it exists for its own sake.
There is no denying Sacha Baron Cohen is a talented comic actor. His early work, particularly on Da Ali G Show, was so unexpectedly hilarious that it sometimes had me gasping for breath. Now that Cohen is a familiar brand, I’d like to see him refocus his efforts. His appearances in Hugo and Sweeney Todd were promising, so I’m curious whether his rumored turn as Freddie Mercury could signal a permanent shift in his career. The Dictator’s best attempt at satire, a lengthy list of America’s foreign policy blunders, is cheerfully poisonous in a way that makes the rest of the film seem lazy by comparison. With any luck, this will be the death knell of Cohen’s star vehicles.