I found the latest Sacha Baron Cohen comedy, The Dictator, tedious and predictable; though I’m not really a fan of Cohen’s work, I am surprised to have to use those adjectives. Cohen’s appeal is largely in his daring: In his earlier movies Borat and Bruno, and in his breakout role on British television as Ali G (by far, my favorite), Cohen created and acted credible characters/idiots and set them loose on unsuspecting costars/idiots. Politicians, religious leaders, as well as unsuspecting “everyday” people are interviewed or confronted by Cohen in character, and tested. These performances are unscripted and often stomach-tighteningly uncomfortable. It’s a kind of hijack comedy I find mostly unwatchable, personally, but I understand the appeal.
The Dictator is a departure from the approach that has made Cohen a star. It’s a far more traditional, scripted comedy. (Given the number of high-profile celebrity and comic cameos, it’s almost a collage: Garry Shandling, Chris Parnell, Megan Fox, John C. Reilly, Aasif Mandvi, Ian Roberts, Kevin Corrigan, Horatio Sanz, Ed Norton, Fred Armisen . . . a lot of agents were expecting big things from The Dictator, apparently.) But lacking the tension of Cohen’s improvisations with the unaware, the comedy is limp and and the jokes obvious. Cohen has been praised as a satirist, but The Dictator’s humor rarely rises above silly.
Cohen plays Haffaz Alladeen, the authoritarian and whimsically merciless ruler of the North African nation Wadiya. He is given all the excessive characteristics we have come to expect of foreign despots: He is vain and childlike, self-deluding, mercurial, possibly sociopathic. But this dictator is also lonely. This dictator wants to cuddle.
After a botched assassination attempt and coup led by his uncle Tamir (Ben Kingsley), Alladeen is stranded and unrecognized in New York City. There, he teams with earnest, liberal activist Zoey (Anna Faris), even getting a job in her multicultural co-op style grocery. Will there be clashes of culture? Will each party be changed? Will weaknesses or excessive character traits be revealed to be strange strengths? Have you seen Eddie Murphy’s Coming to America?
To recount the plot would be pointless. You already now how this ends. And, honestly, once I gave myself over to the formulaic nature of the movie, itself, I found it easier to enjoy the performances. Some of which are notable. As the former leader of Alladeen’s nuclear program, Jason Mantzoukas works a funny combination of exasperation and eagerness (though his character’s decision to cooperate with Alladeen was completely incredible, frankly); John C. Reilly, as a proud and sensitive torturer is simply tremendous; Ben Kingsley is, well, Ben Kingsley; and Bobby Lee is very funny and very creepy as a Chinese businessman who believes—with some evidence—that every American celebrity is sexually available, for a price.
Good character work. But aside from a very small handful of scenes, The Dictator is never terribly smart, never very daring and not at all surprising. Which is surprising.