It's becoming surprisingly difficult, lately, to defend the ambush comedy antics of Sacha Baron Cohen. Where "Da Ali G Show" and Borat were brilliant social criticisms, Bruno was a critical misfire that felt more like an over-the-top exercise in provocation than a dangerously funny trip into the heart of darkness. It was a Borat rehash gone stale, more of the same with a narrative arc that seemed to lazily run through the familiar highs and lows of the Kazakh journalist. That time around, the stunts felt forced and far-fetched. It seemed somehow impossible that after the tremendous success of Borat, so many failed to recognize Cohen in costume. We were bored, and all the awkward nudity in the world couldn't distract us from the simple truth that Cohen needed a new character and a new game. Something a little more scripted, a little more ensemble, maybe a little less reliant on expository narration. The Dictator had potential. The old formula had been re-imagined in a more traditional landscape, surely that meant the opportunities for finessing and visual gags had been doubled, right?
Nope.After a bit of initial tittering, I found myself settling into a comfortably closed off position: arms crossed, watching, slowly realizing I couldn't care less. The premise alone should have made for comedic gold: Cohen plays Admiral General Aladeen, dictator of the fictional North African republic of Wadiya and a man so idiotically egomaniacal that he's ordered half the words in his language changed to his own name. Where the opening portion of the film plays with Aladeen's world of excess, casual violence, and secret loneliness, the core of this little film is a classic fish out of water story: dictator comes to America, dictator is kidnapped and robbed of his beard, dictator is left to his own devices in the country he's publicly committed himself to loathing. While many a successful comedy has been built from less, The Dictator never seems to run with what it has been given and the result feels like a quick sketch. This is a blueprint for a stronger film, a series of set pieces and scenes that could work if the backbone had been stronger, but which here come across as repetitively sophomoric. As I watched Aladeen go through a series of predictable motions (9/11 joke, slyly misogynistic comments on Western women, comparisons between our supposed democracy and his reign), it occurred to me that Margaret Cho may have managed a richer depth of dictatorial character in her brief appearances as a Kim Jong Il proxy (on 30 Rock) than Cohen has with a fake beard and funny walk.
Where the opportunities for satire feel plentiful, the only surprises The Dictator has to offer come in the form of celebrity cameos. We've seen what Cohen is capable of. He's a comedic force to be reckoned with, no doubt, but one stuck in his own self-created rut. Under Aladeen's full beard, Cohen appears to be a lost man. He's been stripped of his anonymity, and while he's proven himself a capable actor in outside works, he doesn't seem to know how to adjust his comedic skills to his Oscar-nominee levels of fame. What he's doing here is too silly to be successful, too plagued by infantile elements to actually seem smart, too stupidly safe, and simply unfunny. By the time Aladeen takes an off-screen dump from a zip line suspended above an NYC street, I was long past done. Even the much buzzed about final UN speech doesn't deliver the full payoff of its build up (though it makes some very good points). Part of the problem is that Cohen's performance, while enthusiastic, is rather emptily built more on reaction than provocation. With Ben Kingsley, Anna Faris, and The League's Jason Mantzoukas in supporting roles, Cohen has a talented cast to play off of. Mantzoukas gives Cohen the most to work with, and his scenes occasionally offer an opportunity for a one-note snort. Yet, ultimately, despite ample opportunity for slick subversion, this film seems to have less to work with than Bruno.