Film Review | The Dictator

The enfant terrible of comedy returns... though his latest foray into politically incorrect farce will make you think he didn't.

Resting on his laurels: with his turn as mock-North African despot, Sacha Baron Cohen fails to improve upon his previous comedy creations.
Resting on his laurels: with his turn as mock-North African despot, Sacha Baron Cohen fails to improve upon his previous comedy creations.

The late Col Muammar Gaddafi and Saddam Hussein are certainly figures worthy of parody - if only to deflate the horror their regimes instigated - but now that both of them are comfortably dead, only a half-baked comedian would cash-in on their reputation.

It saddens me to consider that in fact, it is Sacha Baron Cohen - the man behind the inimitable Ali G, Borat and Bruno - who has nominated himself for this dubious accolade.

For with The Dictator, his latest piece of politically incorrect satire, the previously incendiary British comic has settled for firing one massive cheap shot. A cheap shot which, more often than not, misses the mark by a mile.

Now that he's too famous to film a documentary-style farce in the vein of Borat and Bruno - both of which, along with Ali G, debuted on Cohen's long-running TV show -  he's opted to go entirely fictional... and the result is so formulaic that it threatens to make us forget about Cohen's previous, often hilarious, accomplishments.

The titular dictator in question is Admiral General Aladeen (Cohen), leader of the fictional North African nation of Wadiya, which he "lovingly oppresses".

But faced with the threat of military intervention from the west, Aladeen is advised to travel to America under diplomatic pretences.

Little does he know that his secretly scheming uncle - and political aide - Tamir (Ben Kingsley) plans to swap Aladeen with a mentally deficient body double, and have him sign a treaty which would democratise Wadiya.

Following an only semi-botched torture-and-murder attempt, the now beardless (the shame!) Aladeen strikes up an unexpected friendship with the uber-liberal owner of an ethnically diverse eco-shop, Zoey (Anna Faris).

Planning to storm the televised conference in which the double will sign the democracy treaty - which will enable Tamir to engage in lucrative oil deals with several countries - Aladeen however begins to have second thoughts about his mission as he begins to fall for Zoey...

It's not that The Dictator isn't funny. There are some great, and truly inspired belly laughs to be had here: watch out for a helicopter ride poking fun at terrorist-phobia post-911, keep your ears peeled for the possibly offensive but hilarious 'Arab' remixes of western pop music classics, and notice how, despite the smorgasbord of hit-and-miss comedy grotesquerie, Cohen still manages to slip in some wry political satire (the ticking time bomb here is his climactic speech about US democracy).

But where Cohen used to be an edgy - if often over the top - contender for the comedy crown any given season one of his films was hitting the multiplexes, here we get something that's too late to be topical, with a formulaic fictional narrative that softens any punch the comedy may have had.

And beyond the political ramifications of some of the humour, the obvious gross-out gags are just that - obvious - and you get a sense they're inserted because Cohen is expected to include wince-inducing moments, and not because they are necessary to the overall project.

In all honesty, if The Dictator points to anything at all other than its own uninspiring mix of cartoony humour, it's that Cohen should retire. He can't feasibly accost the real world with his creations anymore, and if the alternative to that is piggybacking on the latest global political controversy with a lazily put together hodge-podge of cheap clichés, it might be more merciful to just call it a day.

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