There's probably still someone somewhere that would fall for one of Sacha Baron Cohen's weird and wooly scenarios, but let's face the facts: the days when Ali G. could snag an interview with Pat Buchanan or Gore Vidal are long gone. 2009's Bruno definitely let some steam out of Borat's tires, not to mention the ensuing lawsuits. But it's refreshing to see Cohen and his Borat/Bruno cohort director Larry Charles flex their muscles in the fictional universe of The Dictator, a vehicle that doesn't skimp on their signature, cringe-worthy humor.
The world of The Dictator gives them the leeway to create crazy spectacles at one point, Cohen's General Aladeen rides down Fifth Avenue on a camel surrounded by a giant motorcade. Having a plot helps, too; although part of the genius of Sacha Baron Cohen's schtick is how the viewer is made culpable by proxy, by our amusement and horror at how he tricks and torments people who aren't in on the joke, The Dictator continues the self-reflexive, satirical bite. We're certainly not off the hook. Aladeen says and does truly outrageous things, but they're also exaggerations of the world we live in. It might be a stretch to call Sacha Baron Cohen the British Lenny Bruce or George Carlin in a face merkin, but rest assured that no topic is off limits. If you are offended by jokes about abortion, rape, feminists, body hair, race, religion, politics, STDs, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, necrophilia, and/or bestiality, don't even bother. However, if you like the kind of comedy that makes you hide your face in your hands, feeling like each laugh is being pried from you against your will, you're in business.
Cohen eats up the screen as both General Aladeen and his incredibly dumb body double; the latter prefers the intimate company of one of his goats to a human, while the former is a fairly stupid ruthless dictator whose own people are so disloyal to him that they actually ignore his commands to execute people. (He really likes to execute people.) When he arrives in New York City to attend a summit at the UN, his uncle Tamir (Ben Kingsley) has the two switched so he can easily manipulate the "General" into signing a treaty to make Wadiya a democracy and reap the financial benefits. Aladeen finds refuge with Zoe, a hairy-pitted activist who thinks he's a political dissident and is excited to be able to give him a safe haven in her touchy-feely Brooklyn grocery co-op. Instead of being typecast as another blonde dummy, Anna Faris is finally given room to play as the wide-eyed naïf who takes Aladeen's very serious statements as jokes or simple miscommunications. She's a great foil to Baron Cohen, who is easily half a foot taller than she is and has a wolfish grin. Their banter is often the most politically incorrect of the bunch, but also the funniest.
Alas, the plot. It's a bare bones situation to get a very broad character from A to B. Aladeen is obviously an outlandish mishmash of modern dictators; he spouts racist, misogynist rhetoric endlessly, and after a while...yeah, we get it. However, like all of Sacha Baron Cohen's humor, The Dictator also takes a direct shot at Western countries (specifically the United States) which would be all fine and dandy if he didn't wedge an expository speech in about it as well. The problem with making a traditional narrative movie is that, with some exceptions, you've got to play within the guidelines. The Dictator isn't trying to do anything fancy; all it needs a few big beats and a neat ending to wrap it all up. It doesn't quite manage to tie it all together in a way that makes The Dictator more than an hour and a half or so of laughing and cringing.
Besides Faris and Kingsley, there are a number of cameos by a very wide variety of comics and actors. Megan Fox plays herself, Kevin Corrigan appears as a creepy dude who works at the co-op, John C. Reilly is a racist security guard, and Fred Armisen runs an anti-Aladeen café in New York's Little Wadiya district. The very funny Jason Mantzoukas has a large role as Nadal, the former head of rocket science who was supposedly executed for not making Aladeen's nuclear warhead pointy. It's a good ensemble, and hopefully Sacha Baron Cohen's next feature-length film will build on The Dictator's weaknesses.