Sacha Baron Cohen has been moving away from the documentary style he used to make both Borat and Brüno by taking parts in other films. He makes the move complete in The Dictator,discarding the documentary format that brought out many of the laughs and the controversy surrounding his previous films. Those laughs, however, don’t get lost in the transition, and neither will the controversy. This is a very funny movie that will also offend a good many people.
Cohen, who also co-wrote the film, plays Admiral General Aladeen, a combination of Muammar Gaddafi, Uday and Qusay Hussein and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. He arbitrarily executes underlings and has for-hire flings with movie stars, but feels something missing in his life. To keep up with the other dictators, he’s very close to enriching uranium needed for a nuclear bomb. As the world’s leaders start to ramp up the pressure, the same is true within Wadiya, as an attempt is made on his life, bringing on the death of a double and bringing in Cohen’s second role as a rural goat herder brought in as the new double. All of this is just in time for Aladeen to make his way to New York to speak to the United Nations. Once there, the conspiracy behind the initial attempt on his life makes another move, and the suddenly unrecognizable Aladeen is alone in the streets of New York. Soon, he’s meeting liberal do-gooder Zooey (Anna Faris) at a protest, and a chance encounter in New York’s “Little Wadiya” brings him into contact with his former head of nuclear research (Jason Mantzoukas). As he starts to work at Zooey’s Brooklyn co-op, featuring a number of political refugees as employees, Aladeen slowly begins to understand just how real-life works for people not in a position of absolute power. At the same time, he and Mantzoukas’ character attempt to get him back into his hotel and prevent the signing of a new Wadiyan constitution.
But the plot is largely inconsequential. What matters most in The Dictator is that the jokes work. While some do get tired, such as a number of jokes about Faris’ character’s somewhat androgynous appearance. Cohen’s commitment to the role is remarkable, as always, even if Aladeen doesn’t show that much personal growth by the end of the film. Cohen manages to bring out how lonely Aladeen’s life is without hammering the audience over the head with it. The supporting cast, including Mantzoukas and Faris, is pretty fearless as well, and they manage to create real characters, particularly Faris, out of potential caricatures. As one of the villains, Bobby Lee is a lot of fun as a nefarious Chinese businessman looking to take advantage of Wadiya’s oil reserves. There are also a number of small parts featuring talented comedians such as Kathryn Hahn and Seth Morris, as well as some funny celebrity cameos. The humor is, as always with Cohen, acidic. If easily offended by jokes about religion, about politics or sex, then the movie really isn’t really for you. The same goes for jokes surrounding 9/11 or terrorism in general. Cohen handles such jokes smartly, but the jokes aren’t exactly subtle. The movie itself is paced well. Director Larry Charles, who’s worked on Cohen’s previous efforts, obviously knows his star’s strengths and keeps the energy from the previous films in the new format.
Unfortunately, there are also some difficulties with the movie. As the major villain of the film, the talents of Ben Kingsley are largely wasted on a part that’s far too small and one-note for an actor of his talents. The plot against Aladeen itself is perhaps a little too obvious and cartoonish, even for a movie not going for subtle, Machiavellian intrigue. There’s also probably a little too much time spent in Wadiya and not enough in New York, where the best jokes probably are. And, honestly, some of the humor does go for shock value above what laughs can actually be milked from the situations themselves.
On the whole, The Dictator is likely to be the most daring comedy in terms of “going there” out of anything released this year. Cohen’s brand of humor is likely always going to stir controversy, whether in his promotion of his film or the contents of them. But this movie represents, if nothing else, a step toward lengthening Cohen’s career beyond his existing list of stock characters. It’s an enjoyable time, provided you have an idea of what’s coming.