Forced to travel to America to address the United Nations, Admiral General Aladeen is intent on continuing his reign as the world’s last great dictator. That is until he’s kidnapped, separated from his beard and left to fend for himself as a traitor works to introduce a terrible new policy to his beloved country – democracy.
While comedy effort Ali G Indahouse
was actually his first dedicated feature outing, it was 2006s Borat
which truly put British performer Sacha Baron Cohen
on the map. Taking the character from his TV show roots on the Da Ali G Show
to the big screen proved to be an inspired move – with audiences around the world embracing the mix of a mocumentary style with outrageous stunts a bravado performance seemingly immune to the boundaries of common decency.
In retrospect, Borat
succeeded for a number of reasons – partly because it was actually genuneily funny, smart and well observed but also, importantly, due to the feeling that many of the subjects were unaware that they were being conned. That impression was sadly missing from 2009s Bruno
, which suffered from a familiar structure which tried to overcompensate by pursuing every tasteless joke it could find.
And so to The Dictator
. Refreshingly, Cohen
and director Larry Charles
do away with the mock documentary form for their third film together, working in satire, spoof and social commentary along the way.
The change is a good one, in theory, but the result never feels like the cohesive experience it should. In moving away from the fly on the wall style of camerawork and towards more scripted scenes and generally high production values, Cohen
and co haven’t quite managed to exorcise some of the trappings of the subgenre. That means we’re left with an ad-lib heavy back and forth between characters and a scattershot story structure which is mostly concerned with setting up the next sketch.The Dictator
is at its best when it takes some time to build momentum in a scene, rather than spamming jokes tommy gun style. Cohen has a brilliant mind and produces some quality material here when he’s well matched – an early scene with John C. Reilly
is memorable, as is an eventful helicopter tour and a visit to a local New York restaurant. But even here your enjoyment may be spoiled if you’ve caught any of the promotional material.
if the jokes are already familiar from the trailer it’s a sure sign of a lack of laughs in the finished product and The Dictator
went many minutes without raising the slightest titter. When Cohen
and his coterie of scriptwriters run out of material they run headlong into tasteless territory and while Bruno
may be more vibrantly obscene there’s a mean spirited streak which makes The Dictator
more difficult to stomach. In its brief 83 minute running time you’ll see corpses defiled, pregnant women violated and an extended joke about child rape that lingers far too long. Cohen’s
targets are wide ranging and egalitarian as ever but these shock tactics are generally fruitless.Cohen
remains a committed performer here, even if Aladeen sometimes feels like a composite of existing characters in his repertoire. But with the safety net of a film crew, a script and complicit fellow performers it can’t help but feel overly contrived and contained – lacking the surprise value and danger of his real world efforts. He’s attracted a number of star names including Anna Faris
, John C. Reilly
and Ben Kingsley
but all are merely adequate, with right hand man Nadal (Jason Mantzoukas
) the only memorable addition. The cameos are even less effective, and I can’t help but wonder exactly what Megan Fox
and fleeting player Edward Norton
thought these roles would do for their careers.The Dictator
is far from a success but there’s little doubt that Cohen
remains a talented performer and the film occasionally throws off its spoofy shackles and casts aside its obsession with orifices and bodily fluids for some well-wrought satire. The final speech in particular gives us a glimpse of the mixture of laughs and social commentary which Cohen
is capable of producing, crafted a semi-homage to Chaplin’s The Great Dictator
. It might be the high point of the film but is soon, predictably, undercut by a sophisticated joke about abortion.