“The Dictator” does for Sacha Baron Cohen what “The Love Guru” did for Mike Myers: Reveal that this sharp, revered comedian with an uncanny ear for absurdist humor is a mere mortal capable of great folly.
The movie isn’t bad enough to be a career killer, the way “Guru” forced Myers into hiding. But the latest collaboration between Cohen and director Larry Charles proves the formula they created with “Borat” and then started to milk dry with “Bruno” has finally run out of juice. Time to move on, boys.
Unlike their previous two films, which were shaped like documentaries, “The Dictator” is populated entirely by actors (there’s only one brief scene that appears to have been shot “Candid Camera”-ambush style, for old times’ sake). The script is credited to Cohen and three other writers (veterans of “Seinfeld” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” but also of “Dr. Seuss’ The Cat in the Hat”), yet still feels thin and underwritten – a collection of outrageous gags and jokes strung together by a flimsy plot no one really cares about, including the filmmakers.
Most dispiriting of all: “The Dictator” is, at heart, a romantic comedy that ends with one of those hackneyed scenes in which all the characters gather together to stand up and cheer while the musical score swells. The shock is that Cohen treats the moment perfectly straight.
The actor plays Admiral General Omar Aladeen, the mad despot of the North African country Wadiya, which is rich with oil and struggling to start a nuclear weapons program. Aladeen agrees to visit the “devil’s nest” of America with his brother (Ben Kingsley) to address the United Nations, but he’s stripped of his power and identity soon after landing in New York. While plotting a way to regain his throne, he takes a job at an eco-friendly grocery story run by a cheerful activist (Anna Faris), who gradually falls for the unusually blunt foreigner who often speaks his mind.
Cohen is too gifted of a satirist to strike out completely with his conceits, even when they’re as shaky and obvious as the imperious Aladeen, who displays all the cultural stereotypes Westerners project on Arabs and Middle Easterners as if they were medals on his chest. There are lots of fleeting laughs in “The Dictator”: Aladeen emerges from his mother’s womb with a full beard and other bodily hair. His former head of nuclear research, Nadal (Jason Mantzoukas), has relocated to Manhattan, where he works at the Genius Bar at an Apple store. When a pair of white-bread tourists overhears the two men speaking Arabic and saying “2012 Porsche 911,” they automatically assume the worst.
Like Cohen’s previous films, “The Dictator” exploits racism and xenophobia for laughs, flinging our deep-seated prejudices back in our faces for humor. But the approach isn’t nearly as effective when it’s actors reading lines instead of real people accidentally revealing their own biases. It’s funny to hear Aladeen say things like “Educated women are like monkeys on roller skates: They’re so adorable!” because the joke taps into sexist views inherent to some degree in all cultures. It’s not quite as amusing watching him play a video game in which he runs around shooting Israeli Olympic athletes at the 1972 Olympics, or listening to an FBI goon (John C. Reilly, in a cameo) rant about “Ay-rabs” and their dirty, despicable ways.
Every genuine laugh and creative gag in “The Dictator” is negated by a cheap or ugly joke – obvious jabs on stereotypes and racism that smack of self-importance, as if Cohen were preaching to us, and radiate a mean-spiritedness that “Borat” and “Bruno” avoided. “Edgy” terrorist humor alone doesn’t cut it anymore: You have to do more than push the envelope, and too much of the movie falls as flat as Cohen’s stunt of dumping ashes on Ryan Seacrest at the red carpet during the Oscars.
It’s telling that the biggest laugh in the entire film comes in the opening shot – a title card dedicating the picture to the memory of Kim Jong Il. The rest of “The Dictator,” sadly, has no clothes.