I used to think that there were two Sacha Baron Cohens. The first Sacha Baron Cohen was a dedicated method actor and performance artist who crafted personas based on overpoweringly negative clichés that made bystanders so uncomfortable that hilarity ensued. The second was a respectable mustachioed character actor who showed up now and then as a total douchebag in movies like Sweeney Todd and Hugo. I liked both of those Sacha Baron Cohens just fine. They are talented individuals with a proper niche to fill in the comedy firmament. But this third Sacha Baron Cohen needs to go. I was recently introduced to him in The Dictator, and while he’s kinda funny and occasionally has a valid point to make, there’s nothing special about him. He’s just a sketch comedy routine that got its own flimsy and forgettable movie.
This particular Sacha Baron Cohen plays Aladeen, the power mad fascist dictator of the fictional North African Republic of Wadiya. Aladeen is, like many a broad comedy protagonist before him, a collection of stereotypes audiences are supposed to find funny. He’s an egomaniac despite his overwhelming ignorance, he’s a mass murderer but it’s okay because he kills for pithy reasons, and like every rich, entitled comedic character before him, he’s so lonely. He’s paid celebrities ranging from Megan Fox to Katy Perry to sleep with him, but none of them want to cuddle afterwards. That is, quite literally, all we are given to sympathize with, which would be completely okay if The Dictator were ballsy enough to coast on Aladeen’s mania, but instead it adheres to a by the numbers storyline that simply asks you to laugh at an assh*le and then cheer when he changes his mind about it.
The plot takes Aladeen to New York City in order to speak to the United Nations and pretend that he isn’t working on weapons of mass destruction, but his relative Tamir, played by straight man Ben Kingsley, takes this opportunity to have Aladeen killed and replaced with a double, who will then ratify a new democratic constitution and secede from office. That sounds like a good thing, until we find out that it’s all being done because evil, evil oil companies want to take over Wadiya for their own self interests. (EVIL!) But Aladeen escapes and tries to reclaim his throne, only to find that his now beardless appearance – it was removed in a funny torture sequence – makes him just another bum on the street. He’s eventually taken in by a bleeding heart liberal played by Anna Faris (the brunt of countless unshaved armpit jokes), who doesn’t know who he really is and tries to warm his icy heart with a hot island song of progressive tolerance.
The Dictator runs about a joke a minute, and enough of them land to make the film a mostly pleasurable experience. But it’s impossible to shake the impression that after Borat and Bruno, oppressively familiar material like this is beneath Cohen as a performer. In his previous leading roles, Cohen embodied everything Americans fear about the unknown, and while occasionally he did a straight up funny joke, most of the humor came from watching the discomfort in his unsuspecting interview subjects, who suddenly came face to face with a comically exact representation of their own anxieties. The character of Aladeen fits that mold to perfection, but by his nature the usual performance art schtick wasn’t something The Dictator could pull off. You might convince Joe Everyman that Sacha Baron Cohen is a flaming homosexual, but there’s no way they were going to get Aladeen into the White House and taken seriously. Cohen’s live appearances in character turned out to be a lot funnier than the movie he was promoting, but even then the joke is just watching as an interviewer waits for the next gag and tries to keep a straight face, which has nothing to do with what the fascist Middle Eastern dictator persona really represents.
Without a surrogate for audience discomfort, it’s up to the audience themselves to feel that awkwardness and laugh at their own misconceptions. The Dictator manages to whip out one pretty funny monologue at the end that achieves this effect, but overall the film is just so incredibly arch that you can’t take it seriously enough to feel it. It doesn’t have much to say about the character Cohen portrays or about how the world perceives that stereotype, which results in a paper thin but generally amusing little farce about an dime store goofball, and not the pointed cultural commentary the subject matter was clearly intended for. The Dictator doesn’t command your attention, it just diverts it.