Sacha Baron Cohen’s Borat was the perfect movie for the perfect time: It was a gloriously mean skewering of middle-American hypocrisy and backwardness that was perfect for the Bush era. It was funny then, but it’s not so funny now. In fact, Borat’s comedy of cruelty expired less than two years later, which is why Bruno — a movie that sought to send up America’s prudishness and homophobia — fizzled so badly at the box office. We were in a good mood. We were proud of the country for the first time in eight years, and we didn’t feel like being made fun of by a fake character who launched objects into his ass.
Seemingly aware of that, and perhaps tired of the lawsuits, Sacha Baron Cohen teamed up with his Borat director Larry Charles and turned to scripted fare. The screenplay would be controlled, the comedy of cruelty would be removed, and a Hollywood formula would be inserted to make it more commercially viable. The unintended consequence? It’s removed all of the teeth and spontaneity of Cohen’s comedy, leaving a movie that is neither funny nor mean. The Dictator is an Adam Sandler parody. In fact, the character played by Cohen, Aladeen — the Dictator of Wadiya, a fake North African country — mugs and acts very much like one of Sandler’s ethnic characters. He’s the North African Zohan.
In Baron’s earlier efforts, he was able to allow his victims, in a sense, to satirize themselves: He used their own words to mock them, turning American culture upon itself. Left to come up with his own material — along with three other screenwriters (how very Hollywood of him) — the satire in Cohen’s screenplay resembles that of a Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer parody movie: It’s big, dumb, broad, obvious and it stars Anna Faris. The screenplay makes a couple of salient points about the American political and economic system, but mostly, it’s Cohen trying to be offensive for the sake of offensiveness, but even in that regard, the comedy is offensive only for how lame it is. It’s a strikingly bad movie, all the more disappointing because we know how intelligent Sacha Baron Cohen actually is, and yet it feels like he’s trying to make a movie targeted at the very dumb people he skewered in Borat.
The Dictator is, in essence, a romantic comedy about a murdering idiot dictator and a militant feminist (Faris), and Cohen’s forced efforts to draw parallels between the two. Cohen plays Aladeen, whose second-in-command (Ben Kingsley) replaces him with a body-double (also Cohen) and leaves Aladeen beard-less and left to defend himself as a no one in New York City. There, he meets Zoey, who owns a health-food store, has a short haircut, and doesn’t shave her armpits, which is where Cohen directs 90 percent of the film’s comedy, including a scene in which he performs lingus on her underarm hair. Aladeen intends to work for Zooey’s store so that he can sneak into the United Nations while catering a UN Event, kill his double, and destroy the planned Constitution before his country is turned into a democracy.
There are maybe four reasonably amusing gags in the entire film, a few odd cameos that serve little purpose (Ed Norton, Megan Fox, John C. Reilly) and exactly one half-speech with actual satirical punch behind it. The rest of the movie, unfortunately, plays grab ass with stereotypes and xenophobia, and while it wants to pretend the jokes have some satirical value given the political context of the film, they really don’t. They’re just bad Adam Sandler jokes disguised by a beard, and The Dictator is a bad movie fronting as parody.