This is Sacha Baron Cohen’s fourth film in which he is the driving force behind its creation; the movies he’s had the greatest success with have been the one where he’s had the most creative control. Before The Dictator there was Ali G Indahouse, Borat and Brüno. It was Borat which made Baron Cohen a superstar and earned him critical praise for his innocently misogynist, racist and homophobic Kazakh journalist. Brüno was similar in terms of controversy and praise. Both films follow a similar form; both are about reporters who travel to America to seek their dreams whilst the fictional characters encountering real life situations and people. The Dictator is a more conventional movie in the style of the Ali G film. Ali G Indahouse failed, and for many of the same reasons The Dictator fails too.
Admiral-General Aladeen (SBC) is the ruler of the fictional North African country Wadiya. He indulges in classic dictator behaviour and vices; he has armies of female bodyguards (Gaddafi), aspirations to head a nuclear state (Ahmadinejad, Kim Jong-il, Saddam), and sits on some major fraction of the world’s oil supply (Ahmadinejad, Saddam, everyone in the Middle East who was kicked out by the Arab Spring.) Oh, and hands out death sentences like… Aladeen is manipulated into journeying to the U.S. to give a speech to the U.N., where he is kidnapped and supplanted by an Aladeen lookalike (SBC again). After managing to escape from his captors Aladeen ends up working in a communal store run by a passionate feminist (Anna Faris) whilst he tries to wrest back his dictatorship from the soon to be democratised Wadiya.
One of the main draws of Borat and Brüno was its air of unpredictability and danger. Who knows what’s going to happen when a Kazakh reporter sings his national anthem in the tune of The Star Spangled Banner to a crowd of rednecks in Bible belt America? Who knows what’s going to happen when a gay Austrian fashion reporter tells the leader of the West Bank’s Al-aqsa’s Matyr Brigade that Bin Laden looks like a “homeless Santa”? The crudity of the jokes works well here because of the collision of opposites. When it’s a feature length movie without such instances Baron-Cohen loses his brilliance and niche. The same thing was lost in Ali G’s transition from interviews and sketches to a feature length film. The jokes in The Dictator are laborious and underwritten. Painful is a scene in a helicopter where references to 9/11 are made. The character of Aladeen is too much like Borat as well. Close your eyes during his exchanges with Anna Faris’ character and the accents of Borat and Aladeen are indistinguishable. Faris herself is given barely anything to work on; her character is just a butt of many of the script’s jokes. Ben Kingsley has even less.
It’s depressing how much the great comedian is off form here. What matters is not the controversy over its themes and ideas, but the movie’s quality. The Dictator is a dud.
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