Most movie stars would die without a script; Sacha Baron Cohen may be the rare actor who works best without one. In Borat and Bruno, Baron Cohen disappeared inside offensive foreign characters and then let them loose on America, interacting with actual people and recording his findings. The Dictator is different in that it’s a scripted narrative (by Baron Cohen and three other writers) about Admiral General Hafez Aladeen (Baron Cohen), the capricious and preening ruler of the fictitious Wadiya. Through circumstances too contrived to bear repeating, Aladeen comes to America, is stripped of his signature beard, and finds himself powerless and anonymous on the streets of New York. How will this dictator, accustomed since childhood to having his every whim satisfied, adjust to life as just another immigrant shlub?
One problem is that he doesn’t really have to. The script could have gone one of two ways: either he goes the Henry Hill route and lives the rest of his life like a shnook, or he somehow bends his surroundings to his will even without the support of the state. The Dictator opts for the second way, and though it seems fresher at first glance, it allows for very little shading for the character, comic or otherwise. Aladeen is pretty much one-note throughout; so were Borat and Bruno, though the structure of their films mitigated the characters’ lack of growth — indeed, part of the fun was in watching the unpredictable reactions of real people to these unchanging, predictable characters. Baron Cohen and his writers give Aladeen some quirks but don’t do much for the supporting characters. The result is a lack of any real comic tension between Aladeen and anyone else.
Needing a way into the United Nations to switch places with his double before the double can declare Wadiya a democracy (I told you it didn’t bear repeating), Aladeen goes to work in an earthy-crunchy organic food store managed by the super-p.c. Zoey, played by a nearly unrecognizable Anna Faris with short black hair. Aladeen falls in love with her, and while the reasons for that are cleverly worked out, we mostly have to intuit that he’s pleasantly shocked by the very notion of a woman who speaks her mind (or, indeed, has one and is allowed to prove it in front of men). As for what Zoey sees in him, your guess is better than mine; she seems to bond with him while helping him deliver a baby, a script decision considerably less sexist than what Aladeen takes for granted, but still pretty sexist. Ah, gals will always go mooshy around a baby.
The Dictator cribs a lot from Borat in that both are about blinkered males who can’t help being sexist and racist — there’s no malice in it, it’s just the way they are reflexively. Borat, however, was used partly as an instrument to draw out American sexism and racism: he would say something offensive, and Americans would genuinely agree with him. There’s nothing like that here, so there’s no satirical bite to Aladeen’s worldview. He just behaves predictably indefensibly in scene after scene. The same point is made over and over. Baron Cohen performs with his usual gusto, but he’s acting in a self-made vacuum. If it were anyone else in the role, and if The Dictator weren’t riding on the audience good will left over from Borat and (to a lesser extent) Bruno, it’d be a complete flop.
Some oddball touches lift the satire a bit: the movie seems both amused and obsessed by the notion of powerful political figures renting the sexual favors of celebrities. (We know from the ads that Aladeen buys Megan Fox’s attentions, but the real joke is his wall covered with Polaroids of other stars, including a hilariously shamefaced former politician. There’s also a cameo by a fairly random star who must be a good sport, or a fan of Baron Cohen.) But by now, what looked like good dirty fun, a funhouse mirror pointed at America, has calcified into easy shtick. Baron Cohen can’t do his covert-op comedy any more — he’s too easily recognized — but he’s got to come up with something other than “guy with funny accent comes to America” if he doesn’t want Borat to be his peak. He reportedly has other things on deck, including a movie about Queen frontman Freddie Mercury, and that might be a fine vehicle for Baron Cohen’s fearlessness and high energy level. But the next time he and his coterie come up with a one-joke premise like The Dictator, they’d do well to confine it to a short film on Funny or Die — indeed, that’s how Borat, Bruno and Ali G started, in short segments on Baron Cohen’s TV show — instead of stretching it to 83 minutes.