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The Dictator

The good news for Sacha Baron Cohen is that he probably won’t have to worry about lawsuits from people unhappy to find themselves in his latest film. That’s because The Dictator is straight from a script, with none of the staged reality scenes that made Borat and Bruno so outrageous. I use that word in both senses: Particularly with Bruno, Baron Cohen went overboard in making fun of ordinary people who, from many reports, were tricked into letting themselves be filmed in ugly ways.

The bad news is that this new movie shows that when he’s forced to rely on a standard form of comedy, Baron Cohen doesn’t have a lot to offer. Working with three writers and a director who got their starts on Seinfeld, and a cast littered with SNL veterans, The Dictator is 80 minutes of unfocused sophomoric humor that seldom rises to the level of one of the later Cheech and Chong vehicles. Baron Cohen plays Admiral General Aladeen, leader of a fictional Middle Eastern country, who combines the most outrageous traits of despot like Kim Jong Il and Muammar Gaddafi. A failed assassination plot leaves him stranded in Brooklyn, where he takes a job in a politically correct health food store (run by an underused Anna Ferris) as he plots to restore himself to power.

Were Baron Cohen ever to talk to an interviewer out of character, I suspect he would justify the film by pointing to the climactic scene where Aladeen, telling a group of reporters what America would be like if it were run as a dictatorship, rattles off a list of traits that are both accurate and shameful: control of resources by tiny minorities, failure to provide for the poor, institutional racism, etc. It’s a pointed speech, but nothing you wouldn’t find every night on The Daily Show and certainly not worth the witless gags relying on fake foreign words and bodily functions that make up the rest of the movie. (Even at this he seems to have been muted: There’s a gag about Aladeen needing to divest himself of bodily weight while hanging on a wire 10 floors up that looks to have been cut.) Defenders have gone so far as to compare this to Chaplin’s The Great Dictator, but at best it’s a third-rate knock off of You Don’t Mess With the Zohan.

Watch the trailer for The Dictator

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