What happens when one of the great comedic talents of this generation literally can't pull off his schtick anymore? I suppose we get movies like The Dictator and we learn the price of becoming a cultural phenomenon when that phenomenon relies on unsuspecting victims to, you know, actually work.
Sacha Baron Cohen made his name by creating outrageous, absurd, dimwitted characters and then ambushing the hopelessly unaware -- celebrities and Average Joes alike -- first on Da Ali G Show and then, most famously, when he took one of his secondary characters from that show onto the silver screen in 2006's Borat. Borat remains one of the funniest movies I have ever seen, and there are many Americans who feel the same way. The unintended consequence of such comedic brilliance is, ostensibly, that Cohen can't really do it again. Yes, he tried with Bruno, a movie I liked more than most, but, really, the jig is mostly up.
And so we have The Dictator, a film that is actually quite funny, but not even half as funny as Borat -- one that tries, sort of, to replicate the mockumentary feel that Cohen so perfected in the middle of the last decade but ends up feeling like a watered-down version of The Office crossed with an Adam Sandler movie. It has its moments, but it's hard to put those other moments -- the gut-busting ones in Borat -- out of your mind and not think "couldn't this have been better?"
Cohen plays The Dictator, of course -- more accurately he is Admiral General Aladeen, the erratic, cruel, out-of-touch tyrant of oil-rich Wadiya. Aladeen is, quite obviously, a hybrid of Kim Jong-Il, Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi. He uses his wealth to sleep with Hollywood starlets and oppress his people (not necessarily in that order); one false move and he'll order your execution with a not-so-subtle throat-slashing gesture. Considering the all-too-real acts of the nefarious characters Cohen is lampooning, he actually gets quite a bit of mileage out of being a homicidal/genocidal maniac.
Aladeen's world is turned upside down when he makes a trip to New York to speak in front of the United Nations and is betrayed by his uncle and adviser Tamir (Ben Kingsley), who hires a hitman to take out Aladeen and switches in the good Admiral General's latest body double in his place. The hitman doesn't finish the job on the real Aladeen, but he does leave him roaming the streets of New York City without his signature beard or any way to recapture his power.
Under the assumed identity of Alison Burgers, Aladeen falls in with a group of hippie Wadiyan activists led by Zoey (Anna Faris) and sets about scheming to reclaim his rightful position. It's right about here that The Dictator loses its way. Though Cohen isn't tormenting a series of real-life patsies, his portrayal of a humiliated autocrat cast out into the streets of Manhattan makes for some pretty good gags. Unfortunately, it doesn't seem like Cohen and fellow writers Alec Berg, David Mandel and Jeff Schaffer knew what to do with Aladeen beyond those few great gags.
He falls for Zoey, but also makes a play to regain his throne, a combination resulting in a conclusion that feels rushed, muddled, poorly conceived, duct-taped together even. Admiral General Aladeen is an uproariously funny character -- another feather to be placed in the cap atop Cohen's immensely talented noggin. But Aladeen feels somewhat misused in The Dictator. I'm not quite sure how he could have been better utilized, but then that's why I write movie reviews and not comedy screenplays.