Sacha Baron Cohen is an ingenious performer that capitalizes on the unsuspecting and morally stunted. In his sole leading efforts, Borat and Bruno, mockumentaries that found Cohen masking himself in thick accents and immaturity, Cohen exposed the bigotry and superficiality that boils underneath the surface of the American dream. Whether it’s Borat or Bruno, with the former being vastly superior, Cohen committed himself fully to the character and whatever destruction that may follow. Because of this, it’s surprising to me that Cohen has been mostly relegated to supporting roles in scripted work. He’s extremely intelligent and boasts a level of charisma known to leading men, so it’s weird he’d be unceremoniously fading into the background. Finally, in the form of The Dictator, Cohen has found a scripted vehicle that attempts to utilize his talents. Much like his mockumentary work, The Dictator places Cohen in garish attire and a silly accent that fluidly rolls off the tip of his tongue.
Directed by Larry Charles, The Dictator features Cohen in the title role as Admiral General Aladeen. Aladeen is the fearlessly unintelligent leader of Wadiya, a fictional sovereign state of northern Africa. Aladeen’s power hungry antics rival the many tyrants that have inhabited this world. If Aladeen was a protein shake from Java Hut, he’d be one part Ahmadinejad, three parts Gaddafi and three chunks of star fruit. Aladeen gets sex when he wants, rigs competitions in his favor (he’s won three Wadiya Golden Globes!) and uses his country’s resources as his own piggy bank. Needless to say, Aladeen channels the extravagant, selfish behavior of most dictators. And what dictator is complete without a clear dedication to nuclear supremacy?! The answer is none. Aladeen marvels at the power of nuclear arms and is willing to do anything to amass radioactive energy. The only problem is that his murderous ways inadvertently set back his nuclear program by a few decades. In an attempt to cover up his nuclear interests, Aladeen ventures to the United Nations. In the empire state Aladeen’s trusty aide (a game Ben Kingsley) betrays him and replaces the leader with an idiotic doppelgänger. Ironically, Aladeen is cast into exile just as his country moves towards democracy.
From that point on, Aladeen, who is beardless and out of his league, seeks refuge in the open arms of an overzealous hippy (Anna Faris as Zoey). Realistically, despite my ability to write a paragraph about it, The Dictator isn’t a plot driven film. The plot is more of a genre checklist than an organic creation, which explains why it shines in moments of diversion and obvious spontaneity. As always, Cohen is incredibly dedicated to the material. I don’t think every laugh lands, especially the jokes revolving around Zoey’s boyish looks, but for every ill-fated punch line, there is a great sight gag or moment of absurdity that ignites a bellowing laugh. Maybe it’s in bad taste on my part, but I appreciated the film’s audacity to make jokes about 9/11 and the level of fear that often surrounds those of Middle Eastern descent. The pinnacle of these jokes revolves around Cohen’s Aladeen taking a misguided tour around New York in a helicopter with some very concerned Americans.
Of course, not all of the film’s best bits emanate from Cohen. Surprisingly to me, the biggest laughs come from supporting characters. Whether it’s John C Reilly’s quick stint as a racially insensitive body-guard or Bobby Lee’s Chinese diplomat that gains gratification by sexually exploiting Hollywood actors, The Dictator is a film that willingly highlights its minor players. Normally this is a good thing, but not when supporting roles offer more laughs than what’s given to Cohen . It’s almost as if Aladeen isn’t the type of character that can sustain a feature-length running time. In some respects, the buffoonery of Aladeen, and the dictators that he’s modeled after, is better suited for sketches or short films. We understand that they’re power hungry, self-prescribed God’s that are already treading on the level of parody, so it’s a bit cumbersome to see joke after joke demonstrating an entrenched notion. Honestly, The Dictator could’ve been better. Using Borat as a barometer of comedic genius, Cohen is a talented man with a knack for the preposterous, and his invasive nature elicits insightful looks at the ugly side of humans. He reaches such great heights intermittently in The Dictator, a film that doesn’t always supply its star with the material necessary to harness his strengths. Although some blame belongs to Cohen because he shares a writing credit on the film. Even if The Dictator doesn’t brush the hand of greatness, it serves as a worthwhile comedy. Plus, it’s always fun to piss in the face of oppressors.