Review: Baron Cohen's 'Dictator' least-focused yet
In this film image released by Paramount Pictures, Sacha Baron Cohen, portrays Admiral General Aladeen in a scene from "The Dictator." (AP Photo/Paramount Pictures, Melinda Sue Gordon)
In analyzing Sacha Baron Cohen and the array of offbeat characters he's created, it's clear that it's become a matter of diminishing returns.
In 2006's "Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan," the observations of his bumbling, thoroughly inappropriate foreign TV journalist provided sharp, satirical insight into our prejudices and foibles. Three years later, "Bruno" felt like a one-note gimmick, with his flamboyantly gay Austrian fashion correspondent merely trying to shock everyone with his flamboyant gayness.
Now, Baron Cohen is back with "The Dictator," his least-focused film yet, despite the fact that it has an actual script compared to the guerrilla-style mockumentaries that preceded it.
Baron Cohen stars as Admiral General Aladeen, who has ruled the oil-rich, fictitious north African nation of Wadiya cruelly and cluelessly since he was 7 years old. Aladeen oppresses his people from the comfort of his sprawling, opulent palace, sleeps with movie stars (including Megan Fox in a cameo) and orders the execution of his underlings for the silliest of perceived offenses.
In this film image released by Paramount Pictures, Ben Kingsley portrays Tamir in a scene from "The Dictator." (AP Photo/Paramount Pictures, Melinda Sue Gordon)
But when he travels to New York to make a speech before the United Nations, he finds he's been double-crossed by his right-hand man (Ben Kingsley) and forced to survive as a commoner. Stripped of his trademark thick beard, Aladeen is rendered unrecognizable and ends up working at an organic grocery store in Brooklyn run by the androgynous, ultra-politically correct Zoey (Anna Faris, who's nearly unrecognizable herself with short, dark hair).
For a long time, it's hard to tell what Baron Cohen's point is in spoofing this type of despot: that torture and rape are bad? Could it really be that simple? A climactic speech Aladeen gives toward the end highlighting the benefits of a dictatorship hits close to home, but it's a long slog through hit-or-miss gross-out gags to get there.
Baron Cohen is once again working with Larry Charles, who directed "Borat" and "Bruno," but the results are more scattershot than ever. An early bit works in which Aladeen plays a personalized Wii game that allows him to kill Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics (anti-Semitism has long been a main target of Baron Cohen, who's an observant Jew). A helicopter ride over Manhattan that Aladeen takes with his former nuclear weapons expert (Jason Mantzoukas) creates some cultural misunderstandings that freak out the pasty tourists sitting across from them — that's good for some uncomfortable laughs.