In his third collaboration with director Larry Charles, Sacha Baron Cohen plays Admiral General Aladeen, the young, dumb dictator of fictional North African nation Wadiya. Under Aladeen’s rule, oil-producing, uranium-enriching Wadiya is a hostile threat to global peace and capitalism. And yet, Aladeen himself is so attracted to Western culture that he has commanded a parade of American celebrities to have sex with him (Megan Fox plays “herself”), taking Polaroids afterward as proof. It’s not a “Fuck you, America!” power thing (that’s a fetish saved for another character, one The Dictator codes as unequivocal slime). “I really want someone to cuddle,” Aladeen confesses, then gazes longingly at walls covered in photos of his celebrity conquests. A poor little rich boy with no limits and no one to love, he’s sort of the Muslim-extremist version of Arthur.
He might not even be a murderer: Without the self-absorbed leader’s awareness, everyone Aladeen sentences to death is smuggled to safety by his resistance-minded executioner. Soon, Aladeen’s brother (Ben Kingsley) attempts to sell him out, hiring a goat-fetishizing look-alike (also played by Baron Cohen) to serve as Aladeen’s double as they all travel to New York to defend Wadiya’s nuclear program to the U.N. The plan is to have the real Aladeen killed, then coach the fake into using the U.N. speech to renounce Aladeen’s regime and announce Wadiya’s impending transformation into a democracy. (Kingsley’s character is no human rights champion: He needs Aladeen out of the way to exploit Wadiya’s oil.) The dictator escapes his scheduled assassination and ends up outside the U.N. in bum garb, leading the gathered protesters in a cry against the “illegitimate” leader addressing the assembly inside.
This draws the attention of Zoe (Anna Faris), a crunchy Brooklyn activist who mistakes Aladeen for a dissident and welcomes him into her refugee-staffed Williamsburg food co-op. While plotting to overthrow the impostor and take back Wadiya, Aladeen uses his disciplinary talents to reform Zoe’s store and falls for her in the process. This subplot activates the film’s most successful joke: Of course a despot who rails against democracy while accumulating gold-plated Hummers and watching Real Housewives would feel at home in a place where “resistance” to the American mainstream revolves around the rigid dictates of political correctness and the consumption of luxuries like coconut water. Faris gets most of the films freshest, funniest bits: Zoe’s memory of her time in a “feminist mime workshop” made me laugh harder than anything Baron Cohen did the whole movie.
Ali G and Borat were such genius characters because Baron Cohen immersed himself so totally while thrusting himself out into the real world and into contact with unsuspecting strangers. The Dictator, in contrast, exists purely in movie world: Although there was apparently much improvisation on set, there’s no interaction with “real” people. Baron Cohen reportedly stayed in character between takes on The Dictator, but I’m not convinced he stays in character during takes. The character doesn’t seem to amount to much more than an imprecise, inconsistent accent and an unapologetic, played-for-laughs proclivity for rape, in a film dedicated to the rehearsal of old-hat culture-clash stereotypes that generally fail to unearth anything new about any of the cultures involved. Aladeen is so implausible as a real-world construction that neither character nor actor takes him seriously—in one early scene, during a speech about how Wadiya is developing uranium for “peaceful purposes,” Aladeen gets the giggles. Twice.
One of Aladeen’s accomplices realizes that the Supreme Leader has been transformed by his Brooklyn sojourn when he starts working Yiddish words into conversation, but he shouldn’t be surprised, given that Aladeen’s comic sensibility is thick with borscht. (“Twenty dollars a day for Wi-Fi?!?” he exclaims on checking into his hotel. “And they call me an international criminal!”) Eventually, the staleness of Aladeen’s one-liners starts to seem like the joke in and of itself—that’s gotta be the only reason why there’s an Eat Pray Love punchline in this movie . . . right?
Much of the material that isn’t dusty feels strained, as if the film is reaching to simulate the anarchic no you didn’t! moments that Baron Cohen’s previous vérité experiments stumbled into. But even in its manufactured boundary-pushing—a flash of full-frontal Baron Cohen, another scene set partially inside a birth canal—The Dictator never really risks anything.
As a comic stunt and a political statement, the film seems to exist to support its climax, in which the “real” Aladeen tries to sell America on the perks of a dictatorship but ends up illuminating America itself. (“Your media would appear free but be secretly controlled by one person and his family!” “You could fill your prisons with one particular racial group!”) As a punchline hammering home the film’s core polemic—basically, that “freedom” and “tyranny” aren’t black and white or mutually exclusive—it’s pretty great. But it doesn’t justify the film-long setup that precedes it. It suggests what could have been had Baron Cohen and Charles played the material a little straight and given the movie’s world stronger ties to our real world. Great satire, after all, is funny because it’s true.