If you’ve watched the last two Sacha Baron Cohen-headlined comedies, Borat and Bruno, then you’d be right to have a fair idea of what you’re going to get from The Dictator.
In spite of being far more overtly scripted than the previous two films (after all, who wouldn’t hang around now when they see Sacha Baron Cohen and a camera crew approaching), The Dictator is still keen to push similar buttons. Thus, his character, General Aladeen, happily spits out comments designed to get under the collar of Outraged From Tunbridge Wells, or whoever writes complaining letters to your local outlet of choice. Some of these comments are funny, some of them not, but most follow a similar template.
The problem is, the whole thing is wearing a little thin, in spite of the determination to throw as much as possible at the audience, in the aim of getting a laugh.
There was a glorious element of surprise in discovering Borat for the first time, with its mix of staged scenes and genuine reactions from those caught in the lens of director Larry Charles’ camera. It might have offended as many as it entertained, but it was incredibly funny at times, and felt markedly different from the laboured comedies released around it. Those raw reactions are long gone here though, so instead, the trick is to wheel out the occasional famous cameo – hello Megan Fox! – and generally up the ante in terms of the outrageousness of some of Aladeen’s comments and the film’s actions.
It doesn’t really work anywhere near as well, though. Considering the running time of The Dictator doesn’t even get to an hour and a half, it feels like a brutally long film at times, as the sketched plot takes Aladeen from the comfort of his home nation, Wadiya, to New York.
Circumstances at this point contrive to quickly leave him on the streets in his underwear, and further contrivances then bring him into the company of his foil, played by Anna Faris. She’s a protester against the vicious ways of Aladeen, yet the two inevitably get drawn together. The film does, too, pull in the odd unexpected moment for the pair, even if their narrative arc is hardly radical.
Still, I’ve long argued that Faris is one of her generation’s most underrated comedy actresses, yet once again, she’s got material that doesn’t give her too much to work with. That notwithstanding, she’s still game, and gives her role a bit more punch that it arguably warrants.
The many other supporting faces are in a similar position, given little screen time to do much with their characters. Sir Ben Kingsley, for instance, is reduced to looking sinister at the camera from time to time, and not a great deal else.
That’s because it’s Sacha Baron Cohen’s gig (on co-scripting and co-producing duties, as well as starring), and how much you warm to The Dictator is directly related to how much tolerance you have for his traditional one man show. He’s been dressing up in funny costumes and spouting out seemingly shocking lines for some time now, and he’s very good at it.
The problem is the film just isn’t really very funny here often enough, nor are things that much different. Every now and then, The Dictator sparks into more consistent life, and it does have a smattering of good laughs scattered around it (certainly one or two more than Bruno). Then, near the end as the script becomes more focused, it lands a flurry of meaningful punches, with the last ten minutes – including a rousing monologue, and the end credits – dragging it near where it should have been all along. Bonus points for the dig at Eat Pray Love, too.
Yet The Dictator is, ultimately, a scattergun comedy with some very firm hits, but lots of misses. It’s also stretched, especially in a first half that takes some time to really gel.
Perhaps inevitably, it can’t repeat the impact of Borat, although arguably that wasn’t the aim here. But The Dictator does leave you suspecting that both its star and director have reached the end of this particular style of comedy, scripted or not.