The Dictator follows the ruler of the fictional North African Republic of Wadiya named Admiral General Hafez Aladeen (Sacha Baron Cohen), a man-child who spends most of his days basking in his opulence, even if the rest of the world considers him a war criminal. Yet, he is forced to go speak in front of the United Nations in order to prevent an airstrike against his country. While there, his supposedly loyal uncle/advisor Tamir (Ben Kingsley) has Aladeen kidnaped and changed to the point of unrecognizability in order to plant his moronic double (also Cohen) to stand in for him in hopes of changing Wadiya into a democratic nation and selling off the country’s rich oil reserves. Determined to oppress his beloved homeland once again, Aladeen ventures around New York in order to stop the signing of a Wadiyan constitution with the help of a face from his past (Jason Manzukas) and an extreme leftist organic food market manager (Anna Faris) whom he may be falling for.
This film notes a few significant changes in the trajectory of Sacha Baron Cohen. It’s the first vehicle for him that’s not based around one of his characters from Da Ali G Show and it’s not shot in the “pranking the audience into thinking the character is a real in order to exploit the inherent xenophobia in everyone” style that made Cohen famous with 2006’s Borat. It’s apparent that Cohen is somewhat floundering without that mockumentary style, as this film shows off his inexperience with the traditional narrative structure. Plus, the film’s brisk eighty-three minute run time, jerky editing, and constantly dubbed-in comedic lines suggests a substantial amount of retooling, which can get very distracting in a traditionally shot film. The plot is nothing we haven’t seen, as it follows the usual “stranger in a strange land” type affair and introduces tried and true cliché comedy plot elements like the love interest subplot with Anna Faris or Ben Kingsley’s villain character (whom is only more evil than Cohen’s dictator character because he wants to sell oil? Yeah… not buying it). All that stuff gets tiring at points, but Cohen manages to make his character strangely charming in a “he’s only terrible because he was raised that way” fashion. Plus, there are so many key elements of the film that are full of fantastic satirical bite, particularly a speech from Cohen near the end that’ll hit US viewers hard.
On a pure joke level, the film is definitely hit or miss. Part of it is because Cohen often falls on his crutch of groan worthy toilet humor and physical pratfalls that work far less without the mockumentary context. However, it tends to hit more than miss and when the film hits its directly on target. The best stuff comes from conversations between Cohen and co-star Jason Manzukas, the latter of whom is easily the highlight of the film. The way the two of them attempt to return Cohen back in power results in some hilarious back-and-forth and some hysterical comedic scenarios. There are also cameos from familiar comedic personalities, some of whom are genuinely hilarious (John C. Reilly, Bobby Lee, and Chris Parnell) and others are just random and oddly don’t even attempt to be that funny (Gary Shandling, Chris Elliot, and JB Smoove). Also, I have to give a nice shout out to the soundtrack, which is filled with the Wadiyan versions of songs from artists like Dolly Parton & Dr. Dre.
Basically, The Dictator is a rather mixed bag of a comedy. It misfires a lot in both the shock value jokes and story department, but has its strengths in terms of its cast and humor that’s more directed at character and satire. Still, it is funnier than the usual movie focused around a dictator. Now we just need to get Trey Parker and Matt Stone to do a spin off of Team America: World Police centered around the deeds of their puppet version of Kim Jong-Il. THAT’S the perfect dictator comedy!