The tale of how Admiral General Aladeen became President Prime Minister Admiral General Aladeen is not one for the ages. As told by “The Dictator,” it is basically the tale of a flabby political farce about oppressive narcissism which marauds uncertainly into the realm of romantic comedy. Sacha Baron Cohen not being your rom-com go-to guy is one reason to find it amusing. Another is the notion of rapacious world leader as portrayed by compulsive boundary overstepper. Neither is quite reason enough, but the movie does have its funny moments, and also sufficient grace to get itself over with in less than an hour and a half.
In his fictive oil-rich North African nation of Wadiya, Aladeen lives large among gold-plated Hummers and nuclear ambitions, by day personalizing the national language and ordering capricious executions, by night adding snapshots of celebrity sexual conquests to his wall of Polaroids. (Quick, mute star cameos are among this film’s most potent comedic weapons.) And yet, for all his prowess, he goes woefully uncuddled.
Then he goes to New York, where he finds himself betrayed by a senior advisor (Ben Kingsley, inert), kidnapped by an American agent (John C. Reilly, adequate), replaced by a simpleton (Baron Cohen, again), reunited with a sacked scientist countryman (Jason Mantzoukas, alert) who’s now a Mac Genius (“Mostly I clean semen out of laptops,” the disgruntled former subordinate reports), and accommodated by the potentially cuddle-worthy peace-activist manager of a Brooklyn grocery co-op (Anna Faris, intrepid), who neither shaves her armpits nor seems to mind being called “lesbian hobbit” or “little boy in a chemo wig.”
It’s a lot for our dictator to take in, and many possibilities glitter before him. Democratization is afoot, at least in the sense that Baron Cohen is an equal-opportunity vulgarizer: With this brazen autocrat thus ensconced in a stronghold of the smugly progressive, the way is paved for duelling caricatures of entitled, adolescent-minded tyrants. Dully, though, the result is a draw — a bit too much like some Adam Sandler knockoff, with requisite tugs at heartstrings and other body parts. (Although admittedly the masturbation montage, complete with footage of Forrest Gump in physical epiphany, is inspired.) After a few mildly outrageous misunderstandings, it’s pretty much indifferently ever after.
The director here is Larry Charles, who also directed Baron Cohen in/as “Borat” and “Brüno” before this, mostly by turning him loose like a bull in the China shop of how we live now. “The Dictator,” too, is situational and vaguely improvisatory, but also obviously scripted — by Baron Cohen with Alec Berg, David Mandel, and Jeff Schaffer — and rehearsed. Adding a despot to Baron Cohen’s stable of blustery imbicles may have seemed nervy and necessary, but in this case the method tends to moot the results. Earlier, his way of taking aim at too-easy targets made us complicit in their exploitation, and that’s just the sort of tension this effort needs and lacks. At times uproarious but never cathartic, the odyssey of Aladeen is too expectedly rude and securely self-contained: culture-clash ambush with the safety left on.
Although dedicated “in loving memory of Kim Jong Il,” “The Dictator” also pays respects of sorts to Charlie Chaplin, who in 1940 saw history coming and seized a very specific opportunity with “The Great Dictator.” Both movies culminate in big speeches: Chaplin’s was a portentous refutation of earlier silence; Baron Cohen’s, oppositely, is a palaver on the subject of autocracy that’s really a sly critique of debased democracy. In Hitler Chaplin had the easiest-ever and most deserving target, but he also had deep wells of poetry and pathos. Baron Cohen, by contrast, has the audacity to dredge those wells after they’ve run dry, and to redraw whatever border is thought to be at the dead end of political-cartoon cinema. But in this toothless, talking-points satire we do see how history has advanced: from the heart-on-sleeve to the nearly heartless.