It was only a matter of time before Sacha Baron Cohen would have to retire his style of guerrilla filmmaking. After the success of 2006's Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, and the relative non-success of 2009's Brüno, sneaking up on people with a camera and smacking his genitals on their foreheads wouldn't be as easy as it once was for Cohen, especially now than a sizable portion of the population knows his face, among other parts of his body.
So his third movie as a writer and actor, The Dictator (which is directed by Seinfeld vet Larry Charles, who also helmed Borat and Brüno), follows a more traditional narrative and customary form of moviemaking, with real stars Anna Faris and Ben Kingsley in supporting roles. No more ambushing of unsuspecting rednecks and minor-league terrorists, and no more social commentary disguised as poop jokes. The Dictator plays its comedy relatively straight.
And unfortunately, it's not very funny. Cohen stars as Admiral General Aladeen, leader of the Republic of Wadiya, a fictional Middle Eastern country standing in for Iraq, Libya, or any other half-dozen places on that side of the world — they're all the same to Cohen. And his dictator is just as generic: crazy-ass beard, huge mirrored sunglasses, and a rainbow vomit of decorations pinned to his blindingly ornate uniform. As "supreme leader" of his country, Aladeen enjoys all the luxuries of his position: a massive palace, loyal soldiers, and a bunch of yes-men ready to build his aerodynamically incorrect nuclear weapons and rig his personal Olympics.
A trip to the United States to ease tense relations ends disastrously when a foreigner-hating official (played by an uncredited John C. Reilly) kidnaps Aladeen, cuts off his beard, and unwittingly sends him onto the streets of New York City, while Aladeen's body double — a halfwit hired to take an assassin's bullet — roams free at the United Nations with help from Aladeen's double-crossing chief adviser (played by Kingsley). On the streets of New York, Aladeen finds a job at a vegan feminist deli (managed by Faris), pisses off locals with his blatantly racist views, and teams up with an old acquaintance, whom he tried to have killed back in Wadiya, to reclaim his title.
Unlike Cohen's two mockumentaries, the jokes don't come easy in The Dictator. In fact, most of them are strained — the 911 jokes, the rape jokes, the masturbation jokes. Much is made of Aladeen's culture clashes (he's racist, misogynistic, and self-absorbed), but nothing new is laid out here.
Plus, Cohen doesn't seem to invest much in the role other than another stereotypical accent. He tosses off jokes and visual gags designed to offend, but mostly they misfire. And a running joke about Aladeen harboring Osama bin Laden already seems dated. Like most of The Dictator's problems, you can blame the script, which was put together by four writers, including Cohen, an improv master who's at his best working without such constraints. Tethered to comedy's usual guidelines, he delivers a conventional comedy short on genuine laughs.