Having pulled the improv equivalent of streaking through a mosque with “Borat’s” ambush tactics, Sacha Baron Cohen retreats behind the veil of scripted comedy in “The Dictator.” Admiral Gen. Omar Aladeen may be the funnyman’s most daring persona to date, and yet most of the jokes land in safely non-offending territory — unless you happen to be an oppressive Middle Eastern warmonger. Although watching Baron Cohen ham it up in-character for press conferences and the Oscars begs the question why he saved the funniest stuff for offcamera, such exposure should help “The Dictator” overthrow “Bruno” at the box office.
“Bruno” posed a number of problems for the outrageous comic. First, it left many feeling that Baron Cohen’s pranks had gone too far, shifting from the “gotcha” satire of “Borat” to downright mean attacks on good-ol’-boy Americans. It also exhausted the last of Baron Cohen’s three characters from “Da Ali G Show,” suggesting that wherever he went next, it would mean having to create a character from scratch. And so Aladeen was born, his full Osama bin Laden-style beard already in place, the heir to the bloodthirsty, oil-drunk North African nation of Wadiya.
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Rather than challenging audience prejudices, Baron Cohen exploits them by presenting this ruthless world leader as an object of scorn and ridicule — the easiest of targets. Aladeen makes up the rules as he goes, rigging Wadiya’s Olympics, Golden Globes and other major events in his favor, while calling for the beheading of anyone who opposes him. When Lewis Carroll’s Queen of Hearts called, “Off with their heads!” the satire reflected back on the English monarchy, but in Aladeen’s case, it’s a bad-taste reminder of the merciless way Saddam Hussein, Muammar Gaddafi and Kim Jong-il dealt with dissidents. (The film is dedicated to the memory of the late North Korean despot.)
Despite his many crimes against humanity, Aladeen is despised by no one more than Wadiya’s rightful heir, Tamir (Ben Kingsley), who first plots the Supreme Leader’s assassination, then shifts to the more elaborate plan of luring him to New York and replacing him with a dim-witted body double, Efawadh (also Baron Cohen). Reunited with his “Hugo” co-star, Kingsley gives a surprisingly understated performance, while clearly savoring the chance to play the anti-Gandhi.
When Tamir’s plan fails, leaving his rival clean-shaven but alive, the film shifts from over-the-top caricature to fish-out-of-water comedy, following Aladeen as he befriends an ultra-liberal American activist (Anna Faris) and discovers his place in the capitalist system. An unexpectedly poignant earlier scene — the closest the film gets to Charlie-Chaplin-as-Hitler tenderly wooing a giant inflatable globe in “The Great Dictator” — finds Aladeen standing unfulfilled before a wall of Polaroids depicting his many celebrity conquests. All he wants is someone to cuddle with.
And so we are to believe that love with the unlikeliest of American women can turn the heart of a ruthless (but ultimately harmless) tyrant. It worked for Eddie Murphy in “Coming to America,” though his anti-misogynist African prince arrived in search of a soul mate. In this case, Faris has been transformed into an androgynous-looking feminist with hairy armpits and hidden breasts, a stark contrast with the “virgins” who serve as one of the job’s biggest perks back home.
No joke in “The Dictator” is funnier than the spontaneous one-liner Baron Cohen uttered after spilling an urn of ashes on Ryan Seacrest at the Academy Awards: “If someone asks what you are wearing, tell them Kim Jong-il.” Between this and the infantile “Ali G Indahouse” (2002), it’s clear the star is most amusing when allowed to go off-script. In several cases, scenes attempt to re-create the effect of putting Aladeen in front of an unsuspecting room, as when his body double addresses the United Nations, but the effect feels forced when hired actors do the reacting.
Of course, working with a more conventional script has its perks. Rather than orchestrating potentially embarrassing encounters with hidden cameras, director Larry Charles (who helmed “Borat” and “Bruno,” and may also have inspired Aladeen’s unruly beard) has a normal crew at his disposal, turning his attention to such detail-oriented touches as Aladeen’s ornate uniform and palace.
If “The Dictator” were opening in the imaginary Wadiya, one could chalk up the film’s barely feature-length running time to the local censors, but it’s troubling to think only 75 minutes of sufficiently funny material made the cut. Working with his usual co-scribes, Baron Cohen must have been writing and rewriting right up until the end, as many of the funniest lines have been looped, delivered when the characters’ mouths are offcamera. For instance, when Aladeen decrees America “built by the blacks, owned by the Chinese,” his insult plays over a shot of the New York skyline.
Typically, political correctness couldn’t be farther from the filmmakers’ mind, and yet, what the pic most sorely lacks is the sort of humanist appeal Chaplin delivered at the close of “The Great Dictator.” Baron Cohen may be ballsy, but he doesn’t have the nerve to make that kind of statement. That said, his climactic speech on the lessons democracy could learn from despotism all but forgives the clumsy plotting that comes before.