Good day, democratic imbeciles. You first knew him as a Kazakh news reporter, then as an Austrian fashionista. Now, dedicated character comedian Sacha Baron Cohen plays a North African fascist in “The Dictator”. The journey of Admiral General Aladeen is unlike his predecessors in that it’s not done in a mockumentary style. So, how does this change the actor’s shtick?
The use of a traditional story (and those words aren’t being used lightly — it’s cookie-cutter) attempts to mainstream Cohen’s brand of humor, whether that was a conscious choice or not. The pop-culture references are a bit more frequent, the potty humor dialed up and the shock gags not as inspired as say, two grown men wrestling naked and chasing each other through a hotel. All the same, Cohen’s trademarks are still there, from ignorance-based jokes to thoughtful satire.
The writing team that assisted Cohen with the screenplay consists of three “Curb Your Enthusiasm” writers, one of which is Jeff Schaffer, who wrote “Bruno.” These folks are all familiar with a looser narrative style, in which the story builds around the jokes. Even director Larry Charles (producer on “Curb”), who did “Bruno” and “Borat,” has essentially no typical storytelling experience. As with any film with a plot simply meant to string together a necklace of gags, the individual jokes are forced to carry the film and the results are hit and miss.
Aladeen is a great deal more unpredictable than Cohen’s previous characters. You never know if you’re going to get the poor idiot routine a la “Borat” or the strong-willed dictator used to getting his way. It keeps you on your toes, but feels less complete and ultimately less lovable. It also doesn’t help that the plot has him trying to thwart his brother’s (Ben Kingsley) plan to turn Wadiya into a democracy. That said, Cohen most definitely wants make you feel uncomfortable rooting for a character who yearns to oppress his people once again.
Capped off by a simple yet brilliant speech about all the things America could do if it were a dictatorship, Cohen’s commentary hits some strong notes during the film, even if it doesn’t compare to the eye-opening methods of his first two, especially “Borat.” For the most part, however, the script focuses on making sure no minority loses out on some form of a jab.
Yet for all the genuinely creative jokes, like a misinterpreted helicopter ride over New York City, “The Dictator” relies a bit too much on sight gags, like a man yanked out of a bathroom mid-urination or the milking of a woman’s breasts. It’s just stupider than “Borat” and “Bruno”, and with that track record in mind, you’re just kind of stunned when an obvious attempt to get laughs draws silence. Fortunately the hits outweigh the misses, but when your story isn’t all that interesting, the misses start to stand out.
Given the array of recognizable cast members, “The Dictator” is also much more of an ensemble effort, but it is definitely Cohen’s show. The casting of Kingsley proves wasteful unless it was to make the point that Kingsley can play any race or religion, but his collaboration with Cohen on “Hugo” is the likely explanation. Anna Faris tries to add some heart as a semi-butch super-organic shop owner, but she’s drastically underutilized for someone as funny as she has proven to be. The biggest supporting highlights come courtesy Jason Mantzoukas (Rafi on FX’s The League), who plays the perfect foil to Cohen because he’s given every opportunity to call Aladeen out on his stupidity.
Unsurprisingly, the bar Cohen set with “Borat” will sour people on “The Dictator”. You want to walk out of one of his comedies feeling challenged and pushed further than you ever expected (in terms of entertainment), whereas the tone of “The Dictator” is clever, but resonates as mostly silly.
As far as the “traditional comedy” experiment goes, next time (assuming there is one) Cohen and Charles should try working with a story structure at least resembling more of a mockumentary, even—dare I say—found footage. It does not have to go back down the road of roping in real people, but Cohen benefits from that touch of realism.
The results of attempting to translate Cohen’s style to the rise-and-fall format suggest that his brand of comedy needs more space to breathe. The sketches and bits need time to develop organically, without an obligation to a through plot line. Fortunately, there’s enough successful humor here to see Cohen through until the next ridiculous character.
- The Dictator
- Directed by Larry Charles
- Written by Sacha Baron Cohen, Jeff Schaffer, Alec Berg, David Mandel
- Starring: Sacha Baron Cohen, Ben Kingsley, Anna Faris, Jason Mantzoukas