Review: “The Dictator”

Sacha Baron Cohen is perfectly capable of going after hard targets. And that’s the biggest disappointment about “The Dictator,” which at times suggests he’s going soft. Certainly, the gags are profane, vulgar, and habitually dedicated to annihilating good taste. But the edge that drew blood in both “Borat” and “Brüno” is dulled to harmlessness.

Then again, the unspoken truth about Baron Cohen’s often excellent work is that he never has been particularly effective as a satirist. Both “Borat” and “Brüno” do succeed at mocking ignorance and insidious opinions to some degree, though these points are few and far between. Do the uncomfortable interviewees of Borat suffering politely through his racist rhetoric really prove anything about Americans other than that they’re polite? Does the flaming Brüno thrusting his sexuality onto visibly upset strangers supply proof of their homophobia, or does it just depict someone uncomfortable with a graphic display? None of those antics amount to much thematically, though critics and Baron Cohen himself are more than happy to pat themselves on the back for recognizing insight where little exists.

Still, he used to tackle politicians and inflame the sensibilities of actual people, both in the audience and in front of the camera. Here, Baron Cohen’s entirely scripted targets range from hippies to the Saddams and Muammars, but there’s nothing offensive to be found. Even Middle Eastern dictators and vegan co-op store runners would likely shrug, and neither of those groups are renowned for their willingness to take a joke.

That isn’t to say that “The Dictator” doesn’t have its moments, because it does. Baron Cohen’s third collaboration with director Larry Charles offers the talented player of idiotic and vile comedic characters ample material as far as his propensity towards the outrageous is concerned. Baron Cohen’s the sort of forceful personality that can often earn laughs the material itself doesn’t deserve, which upon reflection will likely be how most recall the lines that did make them laugh.

Baron Cohen’s newest creation is Admiral General Aladeen, tyrant of Wadiya, one of those oil rich nations that few Westerners outside of intelligence services and oil companies could find on a map. Aladeen is the sort that laughs out loud when claiming his enrichment of uranium is for peaceful purposes, orders the execution of subordinates for trivial non-offenses, and plays a version of Wii Sports for terrorists that challenges the player to behead rebels and kill Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics.

On a trip to New York to avoid his country becoming the next Iraq, Aladeen falls victim to a coup by his right-hand-man (a game Ben Kingsley), forcing him into a world free of servants and soldiers to satisfy his every conceivable need. From there, he meets Zoey (Anna Faris), a protestor who hires him on her co-op, rebutting his unfailingly offensive remarks before apparently forgetting that he uttered them.

Baron Cohen plays Aladeen as a less naïve, buffoonish version of Borat, the Kazakh journalist who made him in star in the U.S. Unlike the excellent “Borat” and “Brüno,” and like the dreadful “Ali G Indahouse”, this lacks the guilty pleasure of seeing real people baffled and humiliated by his crass escapades, a necessity after those films ruined his ability to collect unsuspecting victims on camera.

Yet for the first half of this film’s 83 minutes, there’s reason to be optimistic as the jokes mine territory that’s as rich as it is familiar. Faris, usually killer in the supporting position, proves uncomfortable as both a spoof of vegan-style peacenik liberalism and the foil for Aladeen’s aggressively racist and misogynistic views, not to mention as the object of the deposed despot’s growing affection. Recognizable faces often show up for blink-length cameos, suggesting either an editing room bloodbath or that a lot of improvisation yielded pretty thin results.

Baron Cohen flirts with substance as he takes a half-hearted stab at the failings of democracy towards the conclusion, but then schizophrenically caps it with scenes alternating between extolling and mocking its spread. And there’s the film in a nutshell, a big joke about politics that somehow manages to say nothing and offend no one.