Sacha Baron Cohen’s 2006 hit “Borat” was arguably the funniest movie of the decade and among its most abrasive. His 2009 follow-up, “Bruno,” however, resulted in a laugh void of embarrassing proportions.
“The Dictator,” the chameleonic British performer’s latest effort, falls somewhere between these two extremes. Alternately clever and cliché; occasionally potent but often bumpy, the comedy is a respectable mess.
After a dedication that reads, “In loving memory of Kim Jong Il,” we are introduced to Admiral General Aladeen (Cohen), the undisputed leader of Wadiya. Sporting a signature crimped beard and kindred hairstyle, Aladeen rules his fictional North African country through a combination of brutal savagery and bountiful wealth.
When he’s not executing subjects for the mildest of social infractions, he’s bedding Hollywood A-listers such as Megan Fox for an undisclosed sum. (She provides one of the pic’s many good-sport celebrity walk-ons.)
The United Nations thinks Aladeen’s nuclear dabbling constitutes a threat, compelling him to trek to the U.S. to address the issue. But once here he succumbs to treachery and is cast into the streets while a moronic double (also Cohen) is put in his place.
Aided by overalls-clad, eco-friendly caterer Zoey (the ever-plucky Anna Faris) and former Wadiyan nuclear scientist Nadal (a hilarious Jason Mantzoukas), Aladeen vows to reclaim his autocracy.
With a plot that evokes a more mean-spirited version of Eddie Murphy’s “Coming to America,” “The Dictator” has no qualms about piling on racist, misogynistic and homophobic humor. But at least the movie is an equal-opportunity offender. No target in Cohen’s path remains unscathed.
“I love when women go to school,” he tells the feminist Zoey when she mentions her Amherst degree. “It’s like seeing a monkey on roller skates: It means nothing to them but is adorable to us.”
Yet Cohen’s comic fearlessness eventually works against him. By constantly trying to eclipse a new level of tastelessness — which he certainly succeeds at during a grotesque childbirth scene — the actor undermines moments of sharp observational humor.
Aladeen’s reaction to American life should serve as the foundation for the screenplay, which was written by Cohen, Alec Berg, David Mandel and Jeff Schaffer. Often it’s used only as a lazy setup for the next joke about rape or torture.
Much of the barbaric culture-clash stuff is recycled from “Borat.” Whereas that film’s strength stemmed from Cohen ambushing unsuspecting Americans with his faux Kazakhstani journalist, then capturing their telling reactions, “The Dictator” presents a formulaic scripted comedy. It doesn’t have the added looseness of improvisation or the punch of filmed reality.
Cohen isn’t sure where to take his character, either. Is Aladeen a deeply evil guy, or is he just misunderstood? Does he truly have a change of heart in the third act, or is the joke that he’s incapable of change? Too many mixed messages arise.
Perhaps it’s unfair to hold the talented Cohen to a different standard for attempting a more conventional comedy, especially one that has a number of belly laughs. Yet that nagging feeling of missed opportunity remains after the credits roll in “The Dictator.”
If only Cohen had convinced a real dictator to make a guest appearance.