Let’s get this out of the way. Sacha Baron Cohen exploded onto the feature film scene with “Borat” in 2006. “Bruno” quickly followed. Both movies combined the pseudo-documentary and mockumentary styles–along with a lot of potty mouth—to great effect. Both movies featured an odd and uninitiated foreigner coming to America to discover its wonders while at the same time exposing the unseemly side of many of its citizens—a sort of picaresque for the modern age. “Borat” was the more successful of the two, largely because Bruno was a rehash of the first movie with a lot more crudeness and staged scenes.
At first glance, “The Dictator,” which is the third film to combine the irreverence of Cohen and director Larry Charles, would seem to be the same gambit. A foreigner who has no internal censor winds up in America and must make his way with the aide of every masturbation and ethnic joke in the book. What’s different is that “The Dictator” is entirely fictional. There are no interviews with real people who have no idea they are being set up and mercilessly mocked. I think this was a good move for Cohen and Charles. Austin Powers was hilarious. The second installment less so. The third, stale. What started out as fresh and original became old news by film number three.
Written by: Sacha Baron Cohen, Alec Berg
Starring: Sacha Baron Cohen, Anna Faris and John C. Reilly
This is not to say “The Dictator” is a return to the glory of “Borat.” Don’t get me wrong: there are a million laughs in “The Dictator.” Every race, sex, and sector of society is skewered as the character Cohen plays, a fictional mid-east strongman, is replaced by a double on a trip to the United Nations. With the help of a progressive New York shopkeeper (who doesn’t know his identity) and an old countryman, he must thwart a plan to turn his dictatorship into a democracy.
But forget the plot. It’s so thin you’d need a microscope to see it. It’s all just an excuse to turn what feels like a Saturday Night Live skit into a feature film. The movie is as funny as hell, but herein lies the problem. The movie struggles to be an hour and twenty minutes, and at the one-hour mark I was tired of laughing. I wasn’t interested in finding out what was to happen, like I might in most movies, but simply looking for the next gag.
Many would consider Sacha Baron Cohen the comic genius of our time. Indeed, “The Dictator” may be channeling Charlie Chaplin, who made two movies that recall similar story lines. The first was “The Great Dictator,” in which Chaplin plays a fictional Hitler. The second was “A King in New York,” in which Chaplin plays a deposed monarch taking refuge in New York. Is Cohen cribbing or paying homage to Chaplin? Is Cohen the Chaplin of our times? Cohen is a great talent, but I’m not so sure jokes about “rape centers” and anal torture will earn him a place in the pantheon of great film comedians. Too often, Cohen departs from the field of satire and farce and goes for the cheap joke.
“The Dictator” is the kind of movie during which you laugh a lot, but when it appears on cable one year later, you only watch the funniest five minutes. Kind of like a Saturday Night Live skit, except you don’t have to bother with the other one hour and fifteen minutes of ostensible ‘story.’