In 1940, not long before America’s entry into World War II, Charlie Chaplin released The Great Dictator—a film about a Jewish barber who swaps places with a stand-in for Adolf Hitler and brings democracy to his country. In 2012 Sacha Baron Cohen has produced The Dictator—a film about a Middle Eastern dictator in the vein of Hussein and Gaddafi who swaps places with a peasant and struggles valiantly to prevent his countrymen from being subjected to horrible, horrible democracy. Chaplin produced a fantastic film. Baron Cohen’s movie? Well, even the title doesn’t attempt to compete with the greatness of that earlier film.
Directed by Larry Charles and starring Sacha Baron Cohen, Ben Kingsley, Anna Farris, and Jason Mantzoukas, The Dictator follows fictional North African dictator Aladeen (Baron Cohen) as he’s deposed by his right hand man (Ben Kingsley). Unrecognizable after having his identifying beard shaved off by his enemies, Aladeen begins working in a hippie whole foods store run by Zoey (Anna Farris) while plotting to reestablish control over his homeland before it is transformed into a democracy. Yes, that’s the plot. No, it doesn’t make sense. Don’t even try to make sense of it.
Like Baron Cohen’s previous work, The Dictator isn’t so much a complete movie as a loosely connected series of comedic sketches featuring the same character. Unlike his pervious work, however, The Dictator appears to be completely scripted, which diminishes whatever charm the movie might have had. The narrative incoherence of Borat and Bruno were largely forgivable, because Baron Cohen played these ridiculous characters before unsuspecting victims instead of alongside trained actors. Here there are no victims, and there really isn’t an excuse for the movie itself feeling so disjointed and uneven.
Sacha Baron Cohen rose to prominence playing different characters on the Da Ali G Show, and director Larry Charles made a name for himself by writing and producing episodes of Seinfeld during the show’s best years. Both men clearly understand good comedy, and there are at least a few hilarious scenes and one-liners in The Dictator. What this movie reveals, however, is a clear misunderstanding on the part of both filmmakers as to what makes its star so funny.
Baron Cohen has proven himself to be a perfectly fine comedic actor, and he’s turned in decent scripted performances Hugo and Sweeney Todd, but it’s the sheer brazenness of his stunts that endeared him to American audiences. His real talent is his ability to improvise on the spot and remain in character even in the face of physical danger.
Further, none of his personal projects have been about the titular characters. Those projects were about certain unpleasant aspects of British, and later, American society. Bruno and Borat weren’t characters so much as mechanisms designed to expose bigotry, xenophobia, racism, and homophobia in real flesh-and-blood human beings.
By making The Dictator a scripted affair starring professional actors the filmmakers have stripped away the human element that made the Da Ali G Show and Borat compelling in the first place. Worse, the movie is still strung together in the same haphazard fashion as those earlier projects. The story doesn’t build in a satisfying way and Aladeen is never given enough nuance to create the three dimensional character necessary to anchor a traditional comedy. As a result, the movie ends up as less of a satire and more of a comedy piece about a goofy dictator, roughly indistinguishable in tone from something washed up SNL alums like David Spade or Mike Meyers might make.
To some extent, this foray into fully scripted territory is understandable. Baron Cohen has gained in popularity in the U.S. over the past decade, and he can’t continue on with his guerilla style of comedy filmmaking indefinitely. But what worked for Borat doesn’t work in the context of a completely artificial movie world. There isn’t any potential for danger or surprise here, and while this movie does boast some legitimately funny sequences, they are few and far between.
This dictator isn’t great. Just so-so.