The Dictator is a bit of a departure for Sacha Baron Cohen. In previous movies in which he's played the lead (Ali G, Borat, Bruno), Baron Cohen has interacted with members of the public who were completely unaware that he was playing a character. He still plays a larger-than-life character here, but this time, the film he inhabits is completely fictional. Does this change in comedic style work as well as his previous efforts? Read on to find out.
Director: Larry Charles
Starring: Sacha Baron Cohen, Jason Mantzoukas, Anna Faris, Ben Kingsley
Sacha Baron Cohen stars as Admiral General Aladeen, the supreme leader of the fictional Republic of Wadiya. Ben Kingsley plays an advisor who was passed over for leadership some years prior, and he puts a plot in motion to get Aladeen out of the way. (Of course he does. He's Ben Kingsley. See: Persia, Prince of.) See, there's oil in Wadiya that Aladeen refuses to sell to outside nations, but Kingsley's character is wheeling and dealing behind the scenes and stands to make billions in commission if he can start selling it to other countries. During a trip to New York City, Aladeen is supposed to speak in front of the United Nations, but he's replaced with a body double and left for dead outside the city, setting up the major conflict of the film: can the real Aladeen, now unrecognizable without his iconic beard, make it to the UN in time to stop a new Wadiyan constitution from being signed?
With all of that out of the way, let's return to the question posed at the beginning of this review. Does a completely fictional narrative work as well as Baron Cohen's previous efforts? Not quite. In satire, which The Dictator most certainly is, I've always found interactions with real people over the course of a film to paint a broader picture of the general population's consensus, therefore turning the looking glass back on ourselves and allowing us to examine our culture's ignorance, apathy, prejudices, or whatever the issue may be. It may not be completely representative of the entire nation's opinions, but at least there are real people that you can point to as concrete examples and say, "look, these people actually believe what they're saying."
In a fictional narrative, that element is gone in favor of actors speaking pre-written dialogue, and there's just something about that method that takes the bite off the criticisms Baron Cohen tries to make. At the end of The Dictator, Admiral General Aladeen gives a long speech which, in so many words, condemns the leadership of the United States as a type of dictatorship. It works, and it's even sadly funny, but I think watching real people's behavior is a much more subtle way to critique society's impulses rather than going with a pre-planned speech.
Putting its stylistic choices aside, I think The Dictator has a few great moments of comedic brilliance in it. With Borat, I was put off by the cultural phenomenon it became in the weeks and months after its release, but returning to that movie years later, I found it hilarious. I'm guessing something similar will happen here, but in the meantime, Baron Cohen knows his audience and knows how to play up his strengths. His blustery buffoon character is at his best when he's completely out of his element, and Baron Cohen knows how to walk the line between gross-out humor (which there is a bit of here, but not as much as previous films) and one-liners. He's also got a solid supporting cast this time around, including John C. Reilly as a racist American officer, UCB co-founder Ian Roberts as a police officer, Anna Faris as the Brooklyn-based hippie love interest, and even Megan Fox playing herself in a cameo appearance.
But this movie is really a coming out party for Jason Mantzoukas, who you may recognize as Rafi from the FX series "The League" or from a bit part on "Parks and Recreation." He plays Wadiya's former head of nuclear science who now lives in New York City's Little Wadiya, and he helps Aladeen with his plan to reclaim his position as supreme leader. Mantzoukas' comic timing is spot-on, and he is responsible for some of the film's funniest moments. He essentially plays the straight man to Aladeen's wild man, and watching him get flustered at Baron Cohen's stupidity was a personal highlight of this movie. There's a great series of gags that play out in Little Wadiya that I won't ruin, but they all involve flashbacks of Aladeen having members of his country assassinated. You'll know it when you see it.
Is The Dictator Sacha Baron Cohen's best film? It's tough to say, especially with comedies. Though the lack of unsuspecting real people might not be as funny as the alternative, perhaps this is a step in the right direction for the auteur. It shows that he's willing to step outside of his comfort zone a little, and I think watching him grow as a comedian may be more important than watching him play the same games in his self-constructed sandbox over and over again. Until next time...