Been There, Done That

'The Dictator' covers too much familiar ground to succeed

You've seen this movie before.

In The Dictator, Sacha Baron Cohen plays a fish out of water who is acclimating himself to American culture and offending everyone in sight while he does it.

You could begin that sentence with "In Borat" or "In Bruno" and not make any other changes. Therein lies the problem with The Dictator: Unless Baron Cohen really throws a Hail Mary of a racist joke or something, this flick is going to feel awfully familiar.

He does complete a few of those passes—if we're being generous, maybe a half-dozen—but almost nothing else in The Dictator lives up to his obvious but recently dulled comedic gifts. Admiral General Aladeen (Baron Cohen) is the despotic leader of the North African country of Wadiya. He's a combination of just about every dictator you can think of—mostly Saddam Hussein and Moammar Gadhafi—but Aladeen doesn't seem ruthless; he's more absentminded and dismissive than he is bloodthirsty. Of course, The Dictator is a comedy (or at least that's the rumor), so it probably wouldn't play too well if we saw fountains of innocent blood.

The world community is cracking down on Wadiya—a continuation of the Arab Spring, perhaps—and Aladeen is invited to speak at the United Nations. After an assassin's bullet kills his double, Aladeen insists that his second-in-command (Ben Kingsley) hire another lookalike in time for the Admiral General's trip.

Upon his arrival in New York, Aladeen is kidnapped and tortured (by John C. Reilly in a brief walk-on), and his beard is removed so nobody will recognize the Supreme Oppressor's dead corpse. The plot to assassinate him was hatched from within, and his most-trusted adviser plans to use the new double to sell off oil reserves to the highest bidders. Aladeen escapes, and without his trademark facial hair, is mistaken for a Wadiyan dissident by archetypal peacenik Zoey (Anna Faris).

The dictator is lost and powerless in the big city; it's the first time in his life he can't get anything he wants just by being who he is. Looking for any kind of answer, he manages to reconnect with his former nuclear adviser ... who now works as a Mac Genius in an Apple Store. They hatch a plot to get Aladeen back to power.

While Baron Cohen uses a more-standard movie narrative this time around, the blast radius from The Dictator still comes from foreigner humor. Borat was a tourist; Bruno was a homosexual who squeezed into hot pants and then into situations that would be intolerant of that; Aladeen is a blatant racist and sexist.

If someone pulling his eyes into a slant to mock Asians is funny to you, or if you think a video game re-creating the murder of Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics is LOL, then have at it—those are foundational jokes in The Dictator, and most of the others never really rise above that. The majority involve childish, garden-variety racism, so they can't really even be offensive; instead, they're boring, outdated and far beneath a guy who could be the next Peter Sellers if he wanted. They're just placeholders for where the good jokes would be if Baron Cohen still cared. The sex jokes are bawdy and occasionally gross, but they're not malignant or anything.

When the flash of male nudity occurred in Borat, the rest of the film was so hilarious that it didn't suffer much of a drop-off. It was still kind of a desperate move, especially for a comedy that hit on all other cylinders, but whatever. The reason Borat was so funny in the first place was that there was something innocent and naive about the character's beliefs and attitudes, as obscene as they might have been. That was less true with Bruno, a decidedly more-provocative premise, and the plan of attack—that this character simply doesn't know any better—doesn't bolster The Dictator at all. Every once in a while, a redeeming one-liner buys Baron Cohen another few minutes of your trust. But is this a great comedy? Not even close.

For one shining moment, however, the comedian soars—and he doesn't even say anything funny. His stinging satire of American democracy as a dictatorship, which comes far too late to save the film, is an example of how on point Sacha Baron Cohen can be when he's motivated.

So where was that guy while they were filming the rest of this movie? Maybe that's just his double.

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