The Dictator

From Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator to Mel Brooks’ The Producers and Team America’s puppet of Kim Jong-il, cinema comedy has a rich tradition of deflating the egos of tyrants and despots with deft satirical pinpricks. Dedicated to the “loving memory” of the late North Korean leader, Sacha Baron Cohen’s new comedy The Dictator is a jumpy collection of skits and set-ups – arranged as a kind-of romantic comedy - that starts promisingly but quickly exhausts itself.

Reunited with director Larry Charles, Baron Cohen continues to mine the same seam as Borat and Brüno in establishing an outlandishly foreign, monstrously egotistical idiot as a grandly exaggerated caricature before letting him loose on America. The difference this time is that rather than construct a mockumentary travelogue, The Dictator follows a conventional narrative line, albeit one with a decidedly scatological edge.

Baron Cohen plays Admiral General Aladeen, the ‘beloved oppressor’ of fictional rogue state Wadiya, somewhere on the Horn of Africa. A founding member of the Axis of Evil, Aladeen enjoys a life of gilded privilege, built on the backs of his enslaved populace. Clad in a golden military uniform with a spray of unearned medals over his heart, the trigger-happy Aladeen prances around his kingdom with his uncle and second-in-command (Ben Kingsley), executing those who disagree with him at whim. But dark clouds are gathering, expressed in snippets of real-life speeches from Obama and Hilary Clinton, which threaten the despot’s reign. His plan to build a nuclear bomb and aim it at Jerusalem has met with a visit from the UN weapons inspectors. War looms unless Aladeen visits the United Nations in New York to explain himself.

Once arrived in America, Aladeen is kidnapped by the CIA (personified by casual racist John C Reilly), is shorn of his trademark luxuriant beard and let loose on the city. Adrift in Brooklyn, he meets protestor Zoey (Anna Faris), who offers him a job at her vegan feminist supermarket. Assisted in varying degrees of helpfulness by the right-on Zooey and a former Wadiyan rocket scientist (Jason Mantzoukas), Aladeen struggles to restore himself to his former position and keep his country free from the scourge of democracy.

The Dictator is obscene, scabrous, vulgar and crude but it is only occasionally funny. Aladeen is a rather tired comic character, especially when compared to Baron Cohen’s predecessors. The script pushes every conceivable outrageous button, but what is sorely missing is the candid-camera interactions with real-life people that used Borat and Brüno’s bottomless ignorance to expose shades of the same bigotry and racism in those he met along the way.

After eighty minutes or so of hit-and-miss political incorrectness, Baron-Cohen finally hits his stride in a scene where Aladeen stands before a press conference and delivers a subversive speech against dictatorships that lists, in a mercilessly detailed way, the similarities between the classic model of tyranny and the current American political landscape. It is a moment of real wit and invention that has the effect of making what has gone before seem even cheaper and shabbier.

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