Starring: Sacha Baron Cohen, Anna Faris, Ben Kingsley
Directed by: Larry Charles (“Borat”)
Written by: Sacha Baron Cohen (“Borat”), Alec Berg (“EuroTrip”), David Mandel (“EuroTrip”), Jeff Schaffer (“Bruno”)
It was only a few years ago that actor Sacha Baron Cohen could take one of his eccentric, ignorant and goofy characters across middle America and hold up a mirror to the country’s uneasiness with foreigners and homosexuals, among other things. But then “Borat” was released and became an instant comedy classic, shooting the extremely talented actor responsible for the hilarious “Da Ali G Show” into superstardom. Though he was still able to fool people in the less successful follow-up “Bruno,” Cohen’s box office success combined with his increasingly recognizable face and lanky frame made his formula of pestering oblivious people under the guise of a documentary become less possible. With this in mind, Cohen makes his first foray into the world of scripted narratives to bring another larger than life character to the screen in “The Dictator.”
While in the U.S. fixing to speak to the U.N. about a potential military intervention, the racist and nuclear weapon- obsessed Republic of Wadiya dictator Admiral General Aladeen (Cohen) is kidnapped and replaced with a look-alike. The plan is orchestrated by Aladeens uncle and advisor, Tamir (Ben Kingsley) in an effort to democratize Wadiya and open up its oil supply. While staggering around New York City, Aladeen runs into a local vegan store operator named Zoey (Anna Faris) who gives him a job while he plots a way to stop the decoy from signing the document to change Wadiya.
As usual, Cohen immerses himself in a character complete with a crafted accent and exaggeratedly unethical cultural customs. Like 2009’s “Bruno,” this film doesn’t feature one of Cohen’s stronger characters, though without question, he commits to a performance more than most comedic actors. As the love interest, Faris plays the role of Zoey pretty straight, mostly reacting to the absurdness of Aladeen. It makes for an okay, if not slightly disappointing performance considering how strong her comedic chops can be. The strongest member of the supporting cast is Jason Mantzoukas who plays Aladeen’s right hand man Nadal. Perhaps best known for his work on TV’s “The League,” Mantzoukas is able improvise lines and infuse great comedic timing to deliver some of the films funnier moments. Other than the role played by Kingsley, the rest of the cast is essentially a revolving door of cameos which work to varying degrees. John C. Reilly’s intensely racist character stands out in particular, while the Megan Fox cameo seen in trailers and commercials is particularly stale.
While the film misses more than it hits, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have humorous moments. The problem with these scenes, however, is that every single joke in “The Dictator” is easy. It isn’t just the excessive usage of shock and gross-out humor for an easy laugh. It’s pretty much every joke in the film. From the opening credits dedication of the film “in loving memory of Kim Jong Il” to the wacky customs of Wadiya to the androgynous appearance of Zoey, every joke can be spotted from a mile away.
There’s no question that Cohen is one of the most talented character creators in the film industry today. But based on the quality of his last two character-driven films, perhaps it’s time to move past the zany foreigner conceit. The fact that there are enough body hair jokes to count on two hands should inform potential audiences the humor in “The Dictator” can often be eye-rollingly lazy. And even when a joke comes around that works, one is more likely to crack a smile than bust a gut.