Sacha Baron Cohen originally became famous because no one knew who he was, allowing him to play outrageous caricatures that unsuspecting people took seriously. Perhaps his best character and film was Borat, a racist, sexist, incestuous anti-Semite from Kazakhstan who was so naïve and seemingly good-hearted that people he interviewed were comfortable being prejudiced around him, providing some fascinating and hilarious social commentary as Borat traveled across America to fulfill his dream of meeting Pamela Anderson. I've never heard of any Kazakh stereotypes, and Borat was such a ridiculous person that he wasn't representative of anyone from anywhere. But Cohen's next film and character, Brüno, was a gay German fashion designer who embodied almost every gay stereotype imaginable without using them to secretly mock his unwitting subjects, and audiences largely stayed away (see my review here).
With Cohen now a recognizable star, concealing his identity is no longer an option. So his new film, The Dictator, is a scripted affair, with Cohen playing Admiral General Aladeen, the cruel, ignorant dictator of a fictitious North African country called Wadiya. Aladeen travels to New York to speak in front of the U.N. and defend his nuclear ambitions. But while there, his doublecrossing Uncle Tamir (Ben Kingsley) orchestrates a failed assassination attempt that leaves Aladeen shaved of his trademark beard and thrown out on the street in beggars' rags, where he's taken in by a liberal activist named Zoey (Anna Faris) who gives Aladeen a job at the small organic co-op she runs. Tamir replaces Aladeen with a body double so he can pass a falsely democratic constitution that will allow Tamir to sell off Wadiya's oil, unless Aladeen and a former Wadiyan scientist (Jason Mantzoukas) can infiltrate the hotel where the constitution will be signed and return the real Aladeen to power. Watch the trailer for The Dictator below.
I was worried that The Dictator would follow in the footsteps of Brüno, this time exaggerating stereotypes of Muslims and the Middle East. But the real targets of The Dictator are despots and demagogues like Saddam Hussein, Muammar Qaddafi, Osama bin Laden and Kim Jong Il, for whom The Dictator is jokingly dedicated. In that sense, Aladeen is a good match for Cohen since he resembles a meaner version of Borat, with Borat's naivety replaced by an arrogance and cluelessness borne from a lifetime of living in a bubble surrounded by yes men, flunkies, and obscene wealth. With mentions of Islam carefully avoided, The Dictator is further proof that it's important to laugh at tyrants, not just fear and hate them.
The problem is that this doesn't necessarily make for a great movie. Cohen's films are never long on plot, and without real people to play off of, the humor mostly consists of gross-out gags, Aladeen's stupidity, and the sexist insults he directs at Zoey, even as an unlikely romance between them supposedly grows. While Borat and Cohen's hip hop character Ali G felt fresh and subversive, The Dictator feels curiously safe as it follows the well-trod path of Will Ferrell and his long list of arrogant idiot characters.
I appreciated the point The Dictator makes about the illusion of democracy in China and throughout the Middle East, where freedom often means permission for a tiny elite to profit from exploiting a nation's people and wealth. And an unexpected but very welcome moment came at the end, where Aladeen explains that America would be much better off as a dictatorship since it would allow America to commit a long list of injustices that Aladeen is unaware that America is committing right now in the name of "democracy." It's the one moment where The Dictator feels truly clever, subversive, and incisive, as great comedy usually is, and while it's too little and too late to redeem the movie, there's something wonderful about the fact that we've spent the whole film mocking Aladeen's backwards despotic beliefs, but in the end, it turns out that America and our own illusion of freedom were the punchline all along.