Comedians have a shelf life. A comedian develops a comic persona, audiences respond (favorably or they slip back into obscurity) and the comedian revisits that comic persona repeatedly for five, six, or even 10 years until audiences respond with contempt or indifference, leaving the comedian with only one of two alternatives: (1) reinvent him- or herself or (2) face a diminished future as a semi-forgotten celebrity selling cheaply made, overpriced products on late-night infomercials.
Sacha Baron Cohen’s latest film, The Dictator, suggests Cohen’s future looks bleak unless he can reinvent himself, something few comedians have been able to accomplish.
General Admiral Aladeen (Cohen) leads a life only another dictator could truly appreciate and/or admire. Aladeen rules over Wadiya, a North African country modeled after Libya, with the arbitrariness and the capricious behavior typical of despots. Not surprisingly, Aladeen treats everyone around him, including his long-suffering uncle Tamir (a perpetually stone-faced Ben Kingsley), Wadiya’s one-time regent and heir to the autocrat’s throne, badly. Of course, Aladeen isn’t particularly bright, clever or even cunning. If he was any of those things, he wouldn’t be sufficiently buffoonish for a broad comedy and sometime satire. Baron semi-excuses Aladeen’s brutish behavior by referencing the premature demise of Aladeen’s parents, making him Wadiya’s de facto ruler at the age of six.
But what Aladeen really wants is a soul mate (he just doesn’t realize it yet). Baron segues into a modestly amusing post-coital scene between an obviously satiated Aladeen and his latest “conquest,” Megan Fox. While Aladeen just wants to cuddle, Megan just wants to get paid. After she departs on his private jet, Aladeen stares wistfully at a wall crowded with Polaroid pictures of his other conquests, male, female, young and old. What Aladeen wants, of course, is a soul mate, someone who really gets him (i.e., loves to cuddle as much as he does). But Cohen, his three credited co-writers, and his [i]Bruno/Borat[/i] director Larry Charles have a story (of sorts) to tell, setting Aladeen’s loneliness aside for a trip to New York where Aladeen will give a speech to the United Nations on Wadiya’s presumed nuclear ambitions.
In New York City, The Dictator segues from a broad satire of the title character’s lifestyle to a shallow satire of the faux-immigrant experience and hippie environmentalism. Through circumstances contrived and slightly less contrived, Aladeen ends ups beardless and homeless, his identity forcibly swapped with his double, Efawadh, a dimmer-than-dim shepherd who prefers goats to people. Despite his newfound social status, Aladeen still behaves the autocrat, initially alienating Zoey (Anna Faris), the manager of a health food store, and re-alienating a Wadiyan exile, Nadal (Jason Mantzoukas), who miraculously escaped the hangman’s noose (or whatever method Wadiya uses to execute political dissidents and other social undesirables) before converting Nadal into an ally. That doesn’t mean Aladeen doesn’t change and/or grow into the semblance of a human being. He does. Character change is a prerequisite for Hollywood filmmaking and Cohen ensures Aladeen gets just enough personal growth to make the studio executives who greenlit The Dictator content.
Aladeen acts the boor and speaks his mind, setting up a predictable series of jokes and gags featuring, among other things, bodily fluids and The Dictator’s high-point, a birthing scene briefly featured in the trailers and TV ads that has to be seen to be disbelieved. Unfortunately, the remainder of The Dictator fails to make that particular scene for outrageousness, ludicrousness, or all-around absurdity. It’s a problem not limited to The Dictator’s final third, however. The same can be said for The Dictator’s first third and the second third as well. The Dictator suffers from one too comedic misses, too many longueurs between gags, and shallow satire, including an on-the-nose-speech comparing democracies and dictatorships that Aladeen gives in the second-to-last scene.
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