By forsaking mockumentary, Sacha Baron Cohen limits both risk and reward.
In David Mamet's feature-film debut, House of Games, Joe Mantegna explained the art of the con thus: "It's called a confidence game. Why? Because you give me your confidence? No. Because I give you mine." Sacha Baron Cohen, who has for most of his career been as much con artist as comic, knows this well. For all their linguistic and ideological variety, the characters he inhabited on the big and little screens—Ali G, Borat, Bruno—shared an exquisite credulity. All three got their marks to believe them by being utterly open to belief themselves.
It wasn't merely his victims who were being conned, though. In his two big feature films, Borat and Bruno, Baron Cohen laid the high low and the low lower—but consistently in that sequence. He would win the audience over at the outset by afflicting the comfortable, be they feminists, fashionistas, or famous folk. But by the end he was heaping ridicule on rubes or racists: the real suckers, not people like you or me or Sacha Baron Cohen. Funny as these bits sometimes were, there was a mean-spiritedness to them, an undercurrent of social superiority.
Whether because he feared we mugs were getting wise or he felt he had nobody left to con, Baron Cohen has dropped the mockumentary form for his new movie, The Dictator, opting for a straightforward scripted comedy. And while the film lacks the delirious daring of its predecessors, the sense of possibility and peril, it leaves a less unpleasant aftertaste.
This time out, Baron Cohen keeps his savage wit trained on people with whom (one presumes) he has no genuine beef: you know, people who are opposed to dictatorship and summary execution and rape. Baron Cohen's character, Admiral General Aladeen, is, of course, a strong proponent of all three. As the movie opens, Aladeen, a Gaddafiesque caricature who rules the fictional North African nation of Wadiya, keeps involuntarily cracking up as he announces to the world that his efforts to enrich weapons-grade uranium will only be used for "peaceful purposes."
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The world is less than amused, so soon enough Aladeen has to leave the comforts of home—executing subordinates, playing a Wii game based on the Munich Olympics—to appear at the United Nations and make clear his intentions. ("Ah, America," he muses, "built by the blacks and owned by the Chinese.") Alas, once he is in New York, Aladeen's scheming uncle (Ben Kingsley) has him replaced by an easy-to-control double, while he's carted off to be tortured and killed.
Aladeen is singularly unimpressed with the tools and techniques of his torturer—"An anal umbrella? Where's the splash guard? You're going to murder me and your white shirt"—and he does, in fact, escape, though not before being shorn of his opulent beard. Friendless, beardless, and unrecognizable, he wanders the streets of New York until he meets his polar-opposite love (or at least lust) interest, the lefty-crunchy proprietor of a grocery called the Free Earth Collective (Anna Faris, almost unrecognizable in a brunette pixie cut).
There's more than a whiff of Coming to America to the proceedings, though The Dictator is vastly more eager to offend. As a character, Aladeen is rather a disappointment coming from an actor of Baron Cohen's parodic range, essentially Borat with an entitlement complex. Nor are the other principals given much to do, though Faris characteristically makes the most of her opportunities. The movie itself, directed by Baron Cohen's usual collaborator, Larry Charles, is a bit scattershot and schticky, never quite settling into a consistent comic rhythm.
Yet for fans of Baron Cohen's work there are plenty of moments of crass hilarity. As ever, he is willing to go anywhere for a joke, with the better part of an entire scene taking place inside an area of intimate anatomy. There are some cunning lines about Aladeen's fellow global villains Kim Jong Il (to whom the film is dedicated, "in loving memory"), Ahmadinejad, bin Laden, and, yes, Cheney. The soundtrack is rather witty, featuring variations on "Everybody Hurts," "9 to 5," and "Let's Get It On." And a number of stars—including Megan Fox, John C. Reilly, Garry Shandling, and Edward Norton—make sharp cameos, many on the theme that any celebrity will sleep with you if you pay them enough.
Arguably best of all, no civilians were harmed during the making of this film.