When Sacha Baron Cohen is good, he’s very, very good, and when he’s bad, he’s horrid.
Everybody poops, even ruthless North African despots like Admiral General Haffaz Aladeen. And his alter-ego, Sacha Baron Cohen, isn’t about to let you forget it in unleashing his arsenal of weapons of mass defecation in the “The Dictator.” At least the dirty bombs aren’t nearly as prevalent as the dirty language in a political parody that inspires a whole new meaning for the term Blue State.
It’s the laziest form of comedy, and Cohen utterly indulges it in making the transition from “reality-based humor” to scripted satire. Gone are the biting digs at America’s backward thinking toward guns, gays and minorities, so hilariously on display in “Borat”; replaced by the cheap and obvious, a la Cohen’s last film, the insufferable “Bruno.”
While “The Dictator” is not nearly as soporific as that abomination, it remains wildly uneven, with the jokes connecting at a 1-to-4 ratio. And like “The Little Girl, with a Curl,” when he’s good, he’s very, very good, and when he’s bad, he’s horrid.
The latter includes such scintillating moments as Cohen’s Aladeen sipping from a carafe of urine during a U.N. speech and later dumping the contents onto the Israeli delegation. Gags built around 9/11 and the massacre at the Munich Olympics are equally cringe-inducing. But every so often, Cohen and director Larry Charles (“Borat”) hit on something profound, like Aladeen’s third-act speech in which he praises Americans for not living under a dictatorship in which the wealth is controlled by the upper 1 percent and media pundits monger fear to trick peons into supporting legislation running directly against their best interests. It’s a moment straight out of Chaplin’s “The Great Dictator,” an obvious source of inspiration for Cohen and his co-writers.
Such nuggets are rare, though, as “The Dictator” veers toward the conventional, including a tacked-on romance involving Aladeen and a granola-bar liberal feminist named Zoey (Anna Faris deglammed to the point of being unrecognizable), who makes the dictator want to be a better strongman. What is this, an Eddie Murphy movie? At times, that’s exactly the way it plays, as Cohen grovels before the same audience he’s desperately trying to gross out.
Cohen also makes the mistake of having revealed too much of his hand in trailers, TV guest spots, even his dusting of Ryan Seacrest with Kim Jong Il’s “ashes” at the Oscars (still funnier than anything in the movie). All have robbed his film of any real surprises. Who hasn’t seen the bit with Aladeen firing a gun at his competitors while conducting his own Olympics, or heard him lament the passing of fellow nihilists Saddam Hussein, Muammar Gaddafi, Osama bin Laden and … wait for it … Dick Cheney? I swear I had already seen half the movie before the opening credits, which, ha-ha, include a dedication to Kim Jong Il.
What ensues is a mix of gimme jokes (his mother dying during child birth courtesy of an aide smothering her) and rote fish-out-of-water observations about a foreigner’s introduction to New York City that were rendered cliché by “Crocodile Dundee.” Cameos are also in long supply with Megan Fox and John C. Reilly making the best impressions, especially the latter, who is a scream as an “enhanced interrogator” whose ineptitude leads to Aladeen escaping captivity on the streets of Manhattan. Robbed of his trademark beard and snazzy military duds, Aladeen is quickly mistaken as one of us by the impossibly nice Zoey. She takes him into her home – along with other immigrants – and puts him to work in her health food store.
Romance blossoms while Aladeen works behind her back to scheme to overthrow a plot to overthrow him using an Aladeen double, also played by Cohen. As the man behind the coup, Ben Kingsley looks pained to be slumming in such a low-class movie, but he does his best to be convincing as the corrupt, but rightful heir to the throne in the oil-rich North African nation of Wadiya.
The ending is actually pretty good (love the bin Laden cameo) and the amount of feeling you’ve acquired for Aladeen by then is surprisingly strong, but it all comes much too late to amend all the groans that preceded it. And if there’s a lesson to be learned from being under the “The Dictator’s” rule, it’s that Cohenist propaganda may be enticing, but it’s seldom all it cracks up to be.
THE DICTATOR (R for strong crude sexual content, brief male nudity, language and some violent images.) Cast includes Sacha Baron Cohen, Anna Faris and Ben Kingsley. Directed by Larry Charles. 2 stars out of 4.