I used to think that the main reason why I enjoyed both Borat and Bruno was mostly due to the brilliance of the sociopolitical satire that each of those films brought to the table. But now I realize that those two movies had something else (an added push, if you will): both movies delivered their sociopolitical satire through humor of the "I CANNOT believe they just did that!" variety. Borat and Bruno both made great observations about cultural and societal ignorance, but in addition to doing that, they both made my jaw drop on several occasions, and both films had at least one instance in which I found myself needing to cover my eyes. It's too bad that I can't say the same about The Dictator. I'm not sure if this is an active decision on Sacha Baron Cohen's part to make his latest film not quite as outrageous as his previous two outings, or if I've simply become desensitized over the past three years and nothing shocks me anymore. But the truth remains that, while there are isolated laughs to be had in The Dictator, they're all controlled laughs, none of which will have you bursting or howling. This isn't one of those movies in which, once a scene ends and the next one begins, people will still be laughing from what they just saw in the prior scene. The fact that the movie's humor still works more often than it doesn't would normally lead me to still recommend it, but unfortunately, I'm having a hard time forgiving some truly unnecessary (and not particularly funny) material that's been stuffed into the film's skinny 80 minutes just so it could reach feature-length time, and I'm having an even harder time forgiving the film's excruciatingly poorly-conceived romantic subplot.
As it always goes in these films, Cohen plays a character who lives in a country outside of the US, but for one reason or another, ends up traveling to America and engaging in all sorts of shenanigans as soon as he gets there. In this case, though, I'm inclined to think there may have been more humor to be found in the proceedings if our title character had stayed in the fictional country of Wadiya throughout the entire film. You see, the first act of The Dictator is easily its strongest: watching Cohen play Aladeen, a bumbling, airheaded authoritarian leader is a pure riot, and his interactions with the lower officials and other subordinates are a hoot most of the time. I couldn't stop laughing during an explanation of the changes that the tyrant made to the Wadiyan dictionary (using his own name). A plot is hatched to remove Aladeen from his leadership post by replacing him with his body double. This is where things start going downhill: the film makes several clearly desperate attempts at milking humor from the situations involving Aladeen's replacement (who's essentially braindead), but they don't work. There's a particularly bad scene in which the guy is placed in a room full of subservient females who are ready to give him whatever he wants; timing is the most important thing in comedies, and the timing in this scene couldn't be more off. It comes across as awkward and uncomfortable, but not humorous. Later on, there's a scene that has "throwaway" written all over it, as Aladeen starts removing objects from his pocket in order to weigh less - as this scene unfolded, I kept thinking "Well, they obviously have to exploit this opportunity. He has to pull something completely scandalous out of one of his pockets, and it has to be either something sexual or something horribly offensive." No such luck.
But without a doubt, the worst offender in The Dictator is the storyline involving the "romance" between Aladeen and Zoey (Anna Faris). Faris plays it with the exaggerated effervescence that she has brought to oodles of prior other comedies she's been in. But I don't think there's a single actress out there with the ability to make up for the script's annoying, screeching insistence in turning her into the stereotype of an ultraliberal New Yorker. Perhaps Zoey would've been funny as a stand-alone character in a film that aimed to satirize these people who try super hard to portray themselves as being "totally open-minded" (and there's no doubt that you could make a great modern satire about that). Unfortunately, pairing Zoey with Aladeen romantically (rather than as antagonists) has a detrimental effect on the film's tone, because Zoey simply becomes a caricature who, throughout the entire movie, conveniently adjusts her feelings towards Aladeen whenever the plot requires her to do it, regardless of how completely against her beliefs Aladeen's behavior may be. These situations should've been hilarious (or, at the very least, enjoyable due to the irony of it all), but unfortunately, that never registers. The Dictator's short running time would've benefited greatly from following Borat's skit-like, episodic approach of having the main character get into all sorts of out-of-this-world situations with the New Yorkers he met along the way, rather than wasting a colossal amount of time on the misfire that is the film's romantic thread.
I continue to appreciate the direction in which Cohen aims his satirical arrows, but I'm deeply underwhelmed by the fact that this movie's just lacking that extra pizzazz that made the audiences with whom I watched Borat and Bruno erupt in simultaneous laughter and outrage. The climactic speech makes Cohen's stance on American "democracy" completely clear (yet one can't be faulted for imagining that it'll likely go over a lot of people's heads), and I'd call it a solid conclusion to Cohen's latest satire, were it not punctuated by the resolution of the Aladeen/Zoey lovefest, which should've never been a part of the movie in the first place. Call me soulless or unromantic or sadistic, but I'd much prefer to get an update on how Borat and Luenell are doing. What I can ultimately tell you about The Dictator is that it's occasionally funny, and that I may have even given it a passing grade had it been in someone other than Cohen's hands, but we all have expectations, and knowing the type of brilliantly offensive material that we already know he's capable of, it feels like his latest effort falls a bit short of that.