It opens with a dedication to Kim Jong-il and closes with an anti-Semitic joke, so how can it be that Sacha Baron’s Cohen’s bite in this new movie seems so toothless and safe? Several good comedic jabs are delivered along the way, but the film’s overall pace is fitful and its targets soft. Playing Admiral General Omar Aladeen, the despotic ruler of the fictional country of Wadiya, Baron Cohen opts here for scripted comedy rather than the guerrilla tactics of Borat and Brüno, which used interactions with unwitting foils to challenge the audience’s prejudices. But a warmongering despot who beheads his citizens – who’s going to root for such a beast?
Running only 83 minutes (including a long closing credit sequence), The Dictator doesn’t have much time to wear out its welcome. We are first introduced to Aladeen conducting his affairs as usual: eliminating all opponents so he can win his country’s Olympics and Golden Globes, killing the nuclear scientists who disagree with his ridiculous demands. At his side is Tamir (Kingsley, Baron Cohen’s co-star in Hugo), who plots to overthrow Aladeen by having him summoned to the United Nations and, while there, assassinating the tyrant and substituting a pliant body double (also played by Baron Cohen) in his place. The plot goes awry and Aladeen escapes and finds refuge with Zoey (Faris), a radical activist whom he likens to a feminist Hobbit with hairy armpits. In New York, the comedy favors more fish-out-of-water humor than political zingers, and a wide array of good actors show up in minuscule roles that you have to suspect were trimmed along the way to getting the film to its fighting weight. As it is, there are several jokes that overplay their hands, as if something that was only vaguely funny the first time around will become hilarious on its fourth repetition. Nevertheless, a climactic speech on the lessons Western democracy might learn from Middle Eastern despotism offers a few moments of pure brilliance. I’d say that speech is worth the price of admission if it didn’t also illustrate exactly what the film is missing: barbs that aim for the comedic bull’s-eye.
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