Coming to America, by Rita Cannon
The Dictator stands in stark contrast to Sacha Baron Cohen’s last two over-the-top star turns, Borat and Brüno. The strongest parts of those films were the “reality”-based parts, in which our bizarre and alienating heroes were loosed upon normal folk to sometimes hilarious, always uncomfortable effect. The films’ scripted sequences (Borat‘s kidnapping of Pamela Anderson, the excruciating first twenty minutes of Brüno) lacked the same spark and tension. Characters this outsized are only tolerable when they have plainer surroundings to bounce off of and be contained by. It’s the difference between a great punk rock song and someone just standing around shouting. The Dictator is entirely scripted, and rather than an evolution in style for Baron Cohen, it often feels like a whole movie made up of these weaker scenes.
Baron Cohen stars as General Aladeen, the despotic leader of a fictional North African nation called Wadiya. Aladeen, frustrated by being the last dictator on the block to obtain nuclear weapons, is enriching uranium to correct the problem, but does such a poor job of lying about what it’s for that he’s soon forced to go to New York and explain himself to the UN. It’s there that Aladeen’s jealous uncle Tamir (Ben Kingsley) launches his plan to kill Aladeen and replace him with a double (also played by Baron Cohen) so stupid that Tamir can easily bend him to his will. Aladeen escapes assassination, but not without losing his trademark beard. Now stranded in New York with no way of proving his identity, he takes a job in a fair-trade, feminist grocery store owned by the adorably earnest Zoey (Anna Faris) while he plots to stop Tamir from doing the unthinkable – turning Wadiya into a democracy.
The main problem with The Dictator is that it takes what could be its greatest strength – brazen, give-no-fucks, equal-opportunity offensiveness – and goes so crazy with it that the offensiveness eventually loses all meaning. Baron Cohen excels at playing characters as broad as a barn door, but when all the other characters and the world they live in are just as broad, the story’s stakes get lowered to just about nothing. This is exemplified in a scene in which a woman (Kathryn Hahn) goes into labor in the middle of Zoey’s store. Aladeen assures everyone that he had some impressive medical credentials back in Wadiya, and that he will deliver the baby. (No one even mentions calling an ambulance or taking her to a hospital, because what fun would that be?) His credentials turn out not to mean much. Unless there are some seriously messed up things about childbirth that no one has told me yet, what follows does not make a lot of physiological sense. It would most likely also result in criminal charges if it happened in real life. Seriously, nobody even washes their hands first. But the world of The Dictator is so warped that no one expresses more than moderate annoyance at a stranger violating a woman and endangering the life of her newborn. Comedy doesn’t need to be realistic to work, but The Dictator frequently becomes so silly that its characters seem to live in a world without consequences, which makes it hard to care about anything that happens.
There are a lot of things to like about The Dictator. Almost every line is either a set-up or a punchline, and a lot of those jokes work, even when the big comic set pieces they’re part of feel forced. Jason Mantzoukas is great as Nadal, a former employee of the Aladeen regime who becomes an invaluable guide when they run into each other in New York, and pretty much the only character who’s not an insane caricature. Anna Faris is funny and endearing as Zoey, helping to ground a character who would be right at home in an episode of Portlandia. The political satire gets the sharpest toward the end of the movie, and it’s perceptions are pretty astute, even if they’re not exactly news to a lot of people. But when the main story arc is so lacking in urgency, the film starts to feel like less than the sum of its parts. It’s worth checking out if you want to see what Baron Cohen’s latest wave of antics is all about, but I can’t imagine wanting to absorb it more than once.