The Dictator Review
Sacha Baron Cohen’s particular brand of provocative comedy comes undone in his latest venture, a disappointing satire of Middle Eastern politics that never really comes together. In attempting to move away from the mockumentary approach of previous films like Borat, Baron Cohen falls victim to an utterly conventional plot and a string of misfiring jokes that leave the film struggling to stay afloat. When there’s more laughs to be found in a film’s trailer than in the film itself, you know you’re in trouble. It’s not a complete loss – as with all his films, Baron Cohen succeeds in making a few pointed political statements – but it’s surely his weakest big screen effort to date.
Even if the rest of the film misfires, Baron Cohen playing Admiral General Aladeen certainly gives it his best shot. Aladeen is the oppressive dictator of a fictional Middle Eastern country called Wadiya, which has recently developed nuclear capabilities. In order to avoid the threat of invasion by an international peacekeeping force, Aladeen is convinced by his aide (Ben Kingsley) to travel to the United Nations and sign a peace treaty. After a failed assassination attempt there, he meets and falls in love with peace-protester Zoey (Anna Faris) who, following an unfortunate de-bearding incident, has no idea who he is.
What is there to say about a comedy that just isn’t quite funny enough? For every decent joke, there’s about another eight that fall flat on their face. Sure, there’s the odd scene that recalls how incisive Baron Cohen’s humour can be, such as when Alandeen wanders around New York asking the police for money, or how much they charge for assassinations. A fair chunk of The Dictator does seem to be improvised, or at least semi-improvised, in this way. But he also seems unsure what to do with the character after having gone to all the trouble of creating him. He isn’t helped by a plot as safe and predictable as this one; remember Eddie Murphy in Coming to America? Same thing, except that the US is portrayed in a less than flattering light this time.
Lack of confidence behind the camera betrays itself onscreen. The opening section set in Wadiya is incredibly rushed, giving the impression the filmmakers realised during post-production that a lot of what they had just wasn’t working - as does an extended end credits sequence which desperately tries to send the audience out with a smile on their face. The fish-out-of-water middle section is marginally funnier, as the utterly deluded Aladeen struggles to get to grips with life in New York City. But the romantic sub-plot between Aladeen and the irritatingly dense Zoey feels like what it is: just a device to move the story forward. It certainly doesn’t come anywhere near being believable, so why bother to spend time developing it? There’s also an over-reliance on gross-out gags to get some cheap laughs.
The whole thing is almost saved in the last few minutes by a speech from Aladeen to the world’s press that is funnier and has far more satirical bite than the rest of the film put together, as the Wadiyan dictator holds forth on what America stands to gain by becoming a dictatorship. Finally you get a sense of where Baron Cohen was trying to go with Aladeen, even though it’s too little too late. The character has clear potential but the script is just too flimsy to sustain a feature-length film. Ironically, for his first movie not based on a TV sketch character, Aladeen might have worked better on the small screen. To misquote Paul Daniels, you will laugh… not a lot, but you will laugh.