Sacha Baron Cohen does something fairly bold in his new comedy “The Dictator”—he asks us to laugh at 9/11. Not directly at the event itself, but this is the first mainstream American comedy I can recall that uses the incident as a comedic foundation—a gag that also involves name-dropping Osama Bin Laden (and implying his death last year was a hoax) and miming out a terrorist act.
And you know what? This particular joke, in this particular instance, is actually extremely funny. It is a rare instance in “The Dictator” offering promise that Cohen hasn’t yet lost his piercing political commentary and his fired-up enthusiasm for satire.
Yet it still never manages to match those genius moments of “Borat,” in which a disguised Sacha Baron Cohen brazenly held a mirror up to America’s flaws—where the real and oftentimes shocking reactions of people helped make the movie so progressive, innovative, and relentlessly hilarious.
But now the con has passed, and everybody knows Cohen’s face. So after the semi-scripted and wholly awful “Bruno,” we get the fully scripted and frequently awful “The Dictator”—a collection of rather funny gags surrounded by a movie that has absolutely nowhere to put them.
Which is why this movie feels like such a mess, an idea for a character that never amounts to a feature length movie. When four people are credited on the screenplay, it suggests that jokes were written far before story and the latter came as more of an afterthought. Watching “The Dictator,” it is difficult to ignore such a theory.
In order to laugh at brief scenes of comedy—better suited for a sketch comedy show where Cohen’s character, Dictator Haffaz Aladeen of Wadiya, makes regular appearances in various situations—viewers must truck through the movie’s lame attempts at establishing plot structure.
In some poor, uninspired riff on Chaplin’s “The Great Dictator,” Cohen’s Aladeen gets swapped for a dummy doppelganger in coherence with an “evil plan” to bring democracy to the country he ruthlessly rules.
This leads to Aladeen getting lost and unrecognized in New York City, and joining a food co-op led by Anna Faris—whose short haircut allows the movie to exhaust two jokes for the price of one, taking countless shots at how the actress looks like either a 12-year-old boy or a lesbian.
Cue the pointless love story that ends up being a raunchier version of Adam Sandler’s “You Don’t Mess With the Zohan,” and constantly feels like filler material in a movie struggling to find completion.
Cohen’s aim is true and his observations are keen, but his satirical arsenal feels more spoon-fed now than ever before. Some of these jokes are almost too easy. And when he’s not skewering America with parody, Cohen takes every chance he can to overload the movie with unnecessary filth and raunchy detours (his movies have now gone three-for-three in showcasing his private business).
The best way I can describe the choppy flow of “The Dictator” is by mentioning how its biggest laugh arrives before the narrative actually begins—an “In loving memory of Kim Jong Il” title card I don’t feel bad spoiling since it happens one second into the movie, the movie’s undeniable peak moment. Unfortunately, “The Dictator” is all downhill from here.
Greg Vellante is a film critic for The Eagle Tribune.