Sasha Baron Cohen has long been a great character actor. Whether it’s his wacky characters from Da Ali G Show and the mockumentaries Borat and Bruno, or supporting turns in big-budget Hollywood product like Talladega Nights and Hugo, Cohen fully commits and makes us laugh while doing so. The Dictator, the latest film co-written and starring Cohen, doesn’t do much to change this perception. However, now that he’s an established presence on the big screen, Cohen’s shtick is starting to show signs of complacency and borderline lazy writing. Has someone found success in Hollywood and started settling for mediocrity? Go figure.
Dedicated to the late Kim Jong-il (a clever opening touch), The Dictator introduces Admiral General Aladeen (Cohen), the ruthless dictator of the (fictional) Republic of Wadiya. He plays video games like Wii Munich Olympics, and has people killed for making awkward small talk or building a missile with a rounded tip instead of a pointy one. (Pointy ones cause more destruction, he says.) He heads to America to address the United Nations on his possession of nuclear weapons, intending to stand firm on his totalitarian regime.
Instead, upon arriving to America, his right-hand man Tamir (Ben Kingsley) has him kidnapped and tortured by an agent (John C. Reilly, in a role so small it would’ve been better as a cameo instead of being highlighted in previews). The torture methods consist of cutting off Aladeen’s beard, which leaves him unrecognizable and powerless. In his absence, Aladeen’s double and Tamir set their sights on establishing a Wadiya democracy and world peace — and they’re the villains. What all this says about our society, I’d rather not speculate.
Though portraying a sadistic tyrant, Cohen is amazing at making his character likeable enough that the audience actually roots for him. Anna Faris has never really done it for me, but as an uber-stereotypical pacifist/feminist/environmentalist/vegan oddball love interest for Aladeen, she blends in quite well with Cohen and his circus of obscene gags. The Dictator is an outrageous comedy, and we only care so much about the fate of the couple, but their pairing works.
The Dictator is hit or miss in the laugh department. When you pack a movie with non-stop punch lines from start to finish, half of them falling flat may not be too noticeable. But when a theater is silent after a bin Laden joke, you’ve gone wrong somewhere (and it’s not as if it’s too soon for a bin Laden joke — was it ever?) The Dictator does have several moments of hilarity — whether they be outrageous, childish or genuine — but too many lines feel more like Cohen carelessly trying out dialogue instead of delivering something conceived to be comical and relevant. These jokes just seem too easy. I must also add that a potentially hilarious cameo from one of my favorite actors (and probably one of yours, too) is squandered because he’s placed in a scene with Bobby Lee, an actor who was fine on MADtv, but should not have been given a big role in major motion picture.
The bottom line is that Cohen is still funnier than most everyone on earth. That said, I’ll hold off on comparing The Dictator to his previous work, because that’d only serve to illustrate the drop off in comedic value on display here.