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Movie Review: The Dictator

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“The Dictator” probably sounded like a good idea when it was first proposed. Sacha Baron Cohen, playing a wacky foreign character who comes to America and collides with Americans, while mining some of the sort of daring political satire he did back in his Da Ali G Show days. The film even brings back Larry Charles, the Seinfeld veteran who directed both “Borat” and “Bruno.”

Unfortunately, it’s landed with a huge thud. All “The Dictator” amounts to is a mediocre knockoff of “Coming to America,” if Prince Akeem had been both less funny, and a notorious war criminal. It also includes very little of the best things about Cohen’s previous projects, and a whole lot of the worst.

Arriving on the heels of an increasingly tiresome advertising campaign, “The Dictator” drops the improv/prank conceit of “Borat” and “Bruno” in favor of scripted comedy. Cohen is General Aladeen, dictator of the fictional Middle Eastern nation of Wadiya. A sort of hybrid of Saddam, Qaddafi and Kim Jong-Il, Aladeen spends his days ordering executions and bedding various female celebrities, including Megan Fox, in a cameo that’s her latest career nadir.

When Aladeen is brought before the U.N. to answer charges of developing weapons of mass destruction, he’s forced by circumstances to hide his identity, so we have the plot of “Coming to America”- a third world ruler comes to New York but has to pretend he’s not who he really is while romancing a local woman, in this case Anna Faris as the head of a Brooklyn-based vegan co-op. Their goal is to foil the plans of the dictator’s scheming advisor (Ben Kingsley) to use a double of Aladeen to embrace democracy and open the country to oil exploration.

Sound funny? It really isn’t. Maybe ten percent of the jokes connect. Not much of the culture-clash or fish-out-of-water stuff is especially funny, and the political satire is mostly toothless, except for a long speech at the end that not only doesn’t fit the movie we just watched, but is so heavy-handed and obvious that even Michael Moore would probably dismiss it as too over-the-top.

Cohen’s Ali G material was legitimately subversive- he was misrepresenting who he was, in order to get real people, some of them powerful politicians, to say damning things on camera. The “Borat” movie, to a lesser extent, was that as well, although “Bruno”‘s conceit was simpler and less funny- “I’m going to be aggressively, nakedly gay, over and over again, and call you a homophobe for reacting” was really its only joke.

All Cohen does here is an old hack standup comedian trick- make lackluster jokes that seem daring just because they’re about controversial subjects. Just because you’re joking about rape, torture, anti-Semitism, baby-killing and various war crimes, as “The Dictator” does, doesn’t mean you’re making any kind of bold statement. The film also never mentions Islam, which is strange for a movie about a Middle Eastern dictator. Once again, it’s a far cry from Cohen’s earlier work; a producer of Da Ali G Show once said in an interview, of the Ali G character, “If he had a whiff of Islam about him, we thought people would be afraid to challenge him.”

There are also several elaborate physical gags- involving attempts to deliver a baby, and zipline across two buildings- that drag on forever and aren’t nearly as funny as the filmmakers think they are. The film is just over the 80-minute mark but feels much longer.

“The Dictator” is full of very funny people not getting a chance to be very funny. Jason Mantzoukas, who as El Cunado for the last two years on FX’s The League has given one of the most manic, insane, hilarious performances in recent comedy history, is here in a nothing sidekick role, playing Arsenio Hall to Cohen’s Eddie Murphy. John C. Reilly looks like he’s going to give a funny supporting performance but then disappears two minutes later.

Despite Anna Faris’ best efforts, there’s nothing especially funny about the vegan coop subplot, unless you really can’t get enough of hippie-bashing jokes. Kingsley was in already in another, much better movie, “Dave,” about evil political advisers manipulating a presidential double. And comedy powerhouses like Garry Shandling and J.B. Smoove have blink-and-you-miss-it cameos; Shandling doesn’t even get to speak.

Sacha Baron Cohen has reached the point in which he’s probably too recognizable to keep pulling off the hidden-camera incognito thing; that’s understood. He’s still a very talented actor and comedian who likely has at least one more comedy masterpiece in him. But “The Dictator” is clearly not that.

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