I find it hard to fathom, but perhaps Sacha Baron Cohen doesn’t realize that he’s not a movie pratfall artist: he’s a cultural critic. The thing that he is really really good at — as Borat and Bruno and Ali G. demonstrate — is not so much in being funny himself but in getting other, actual, non-Hollywood people to reveal their biases and prejudices, and in the process revealing the underlying idiocies that fuel Western society. As such, a sheltered, coddled Middle Eastern dictator character who cannot easily go among ordinary Westerners — and elicit their unguarded commentary on life, the universe, and everything — is perhaps not the best avenue for his brand of, what had been, at least up till now, bitter, brilliant, observant satire.
For The Dictator is a stunning failure, certainly compared to Borat and Bruno. There’s a moment at the very end of the film, when his Admiral General Aladeen, despotic ruler of the (fictional) North African nation of Wadiya, delivers a dazzling little speech in New York City hailing the glories of dictatorship and what America could do if it were a dictatorship — the joke is, it’s all stuff the U.S. is already doing right this very moment, indefinite detentions and wild economic inequities and so on — that makes you realize that he understands perfectly well whom the object of his rage should have been throughout the film. It’s just that as screenwriter, he couldn’t figure out how to make the richly deserving powerful-and-corrupt the butt of comedic ire. (His coscreenwriters? Alec Berg, David Mandel, and Jeff Schaffer, who between them are responsible, to varying degrees, for two of the worst movies ever made, The Cat in the Hat and Eurotrip. Why they have been allowed to commit cinema again is a mystery.)
And so instead, The Dictator sets up, bizarrely, straw-man objects for its supposed jocularity that not only don’t make sense but are wildly unfair. Aladeen comes to New York to deliver an address to the UN, to account for his pursuit of nuclear weapons and his tyranny, and ends up — oh, don’t ask how — anonymous on the streets, and now friends with Anna Faris’s (Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked, What’s Your Number?) Zoey, who runs a collectivist organic grocery store in Brooklyn. Zoey and her work are very much the diametric opposite of what Aladeen stands for — he is all about autocracy, violence, and misogyny, while she is all about inclusiveness, tolerance, and living in harmony — and yet she and her shop are played for cruel humor based on things that aren’t real-world authentic but meanspirited right-wing caricatures of progressivism. It’s one thing to have Aladeen make fun of the oppressed and mutilated minority political refugees who work in Zoey’s shop — it’s quite another for the film itself to make fun of them, and to make fun of Zoey. (C’mon: Who in their right mind would give an amputee woman with mechanical claws for hands a job handling delicate plastic bags of grains?) For either Zoey is meant to be a “hilariously” complete moron for not smacking down Aladeen’s racist, sexist, all-around bigoted bullshit, or else Zoey’s notions of tolerance are being offered up for ridicule.
There’s also something desperately uncomfortable — and not in a good, positive, challenging way — about a film that presumes its audience will identify with a brutal woman-hating despot like Aladeen when it comes to a woman’s body hair, disgust with thereof.
There are scattered moments in The Dictator that hint at the wicked, pointed parody Baron Cohen is capable of. But they are too few, and far between, and most of what’s left is really really dumb and desperately unfunny. I have been such a devoted fan of Baron Cohen that the disappointment of The Dictator is profoundly, um, profound. There’s so much potential power here, and it’s all but squandered. Baron Cohen’s in-character promos for the film — such as when he spilled the “ashes” of Kim-Jong Il” on Ryan Seacrest on the Oscars red carpet — have been far more potent than the film itself is. It’s clear that this marvelously talented performer is at his subversive best in unscripted, real-life situations that highlight the inequities and the injustices of how we have structured our society. He doesn’t need to invent scenarios to be knocked down… and if The Dictator is any measure, he’s not on his A game when he does.