The idiom of Sacha Baron Cohen fundamentally depends on an outsider’s approach. Well, that and his giant brass balls, but they all essentially work in tandem. He combines ambush tactics with willfully appalling characters to shed light on our own failures and shortcomings. It worked well in his previous efforts, which used a docudrama format to let him interact with unknowing real-life subjects. The Dictator attempts to port that equation into a more traditional movie formula… which ironically robs his comedy of its most potent weapon. We can’t look at ourselves the same way if we only see performances, and his vicious satire thus has nowhere to turn.
That doesn’t make The Dictator a bad film, just one hobbled by too many compromises. It lacks the visceral anarchy to which it clearly aspires: that sense that Cohen is playing with lit dynamite that could explode at any moment. Without it, his shock tactics become little more than hollow button-pushing, while the more traditional elements of the screenplay fall flat on their face. He mines a respectable amount of laughs from his solid-gold premise – a North African despot stranded in the anonymity of New York – but still leaves a lot of wasted potential on the field.
Much of the trouble comes from undue emphasis on the star himself. Cohen cuts a hysterical figure as Admiral General Aladeen – a man so egomaniacal he replaced hundreds of words in his native tongue with his own name – but he doesn’t give anyone else in the cast room to breathe. Called to the UN to answer for the deplorable state of his regime, he finds himself targeted by resistance groups from his country and replaced by an idiotic double (also played by Cohen in a nod to Charlie Chaplin) while he himself wanders the streets forgotten. A hippie-dippie natural foods store owner named Zoey (Anna Faris) takes him in while he schemes to retake his throne with her unwitting help.
Faris is a comedic thoroughbred and can easily match her costar in the improv department, but the script here gives her little to do but look exasperated and forgive Aladeen his appallingly backwards philosophy. Her tolerance become a dig at the far left, but it grows repetitive and her constant status as the butt of the joke often embodies the very sexism Cohen presumably hopes to decry. Ben Kingsley also wanders through the scenery as Aladeen’s chief aide, as does Sayed Badreya playing the head of his nuclear program. John C. Reilly does a little better – playing a jingoistic America who abducts Aladeen and sets the whole plot in motion – but he doesn’t have much screen time to capitalize on the early gain.
Director Larry Charles compounds those problems with his clunky approach to the more traditional parts of the narrative. I’m hard-pressed to think of an onscreen couple as forced and artificial as Cohen and Faris: not because of their chemistry, which is electric, but because the screenplay provides no justification whatsoever for their bonding. Aladeen literally stands for everything Zoey despises on this Earth, but rather than using that as a challenge, the screenwriters conveniently ignore it in favor of formulaic inertia. The same principle holds for Aladeen’s efforts to regain his throne, depending on a change of heart that comes to loggerheads with the character’s funniest (i.e., most awful) traits.
That leaves Cohen himself to pick up the slack, and to be sure you won’t find many people as brazenly funny as he is these days. His eye for social commentary comes through sharply in the film’s best scenes, topped by a final speech likening his oppressive government to the current state of Western society. But without the verite of his earlier works, it becomes just another soapbox screed. We don’t see the evils he points out, we’re merely being told about them. It’s no surprise that his promotional work for the film – done in character – works better than a lot of the sequences here, and while his sheer chutzpah engenders its share of laughs, it lacks the glue to pull it all together. Cohen is a major comedic talent and The Dictator could have been a crowning satirical statement of our time. The vaguely edgy sketch comedy we get feels like a big letdown in comparison.