The Dictator | Movie Review
Sacha Baron Cohen gives up on topical punking.
Sacha Baron Cohen has always acknowledged that as his fame grew, it would become more difficult to find potential dupes. With The Dictator, his experiment in sociological punking nears an end. Not only is the movie scripted, but the joke is subtly different: While Borat and Brüno confronted interviewees with their own bigotry or tested the limits of their politesse, everyone in The Dictator is justifiably appalled at Baron Cohen’s Aladeen, a deposed North African totalitarian from “Wadiya” who applies his enhanced interrogation techniques to running a Brooklyn natural-grocery store (and falls for its manager, played by Anna Faris).
The reduction in spontaneity lowers the risks. Unsurprisingly, the best jokes fall closest to the old, topical template. The movie is offered “in loving memory of Kim Jong-il,” Aladeen and his nuclear-scientist friend (Jason Mantzoukas) get profiled as terrorists on a tourist helicopter, and a climactic monologue devastatingly runs down a list of anti-democratic tendencies here at home. But despite allusions to the Arab Spring, Baron Cohen and his regular director, Larry Charles, mostly opt for rapid-fire goofiness, with a string of one-liners and wordplay only slightly more incorrect than what you’d find in a midrange ZAZ comedy.
Borrowing the mistaken-identity device of Chaplin’s The Great Dictator, the movie finds Aladeen betrayed by his right-hand man (Ben Kingsley) during a U.N. summit and set adrift in the metropolitan melting pot. He stumbles into a Wadiyan restaurant run by his own escaped executionees and develops an affinity for Yiddish (“I’m in New York—I picked it up!”). While any despot who can deliver a baby while sending a text has certainly earned our laughs, he’s also too broadly caricatured to be threatening—in a way the hapless would-be jihadists in Chris Morris’s Four Lions were not. Baron Cohen’s point may be that the line between dictatorship and kleptocracy is a thin one, but so’s the line between comic genius and merely mucking around.