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.