The Dictator may be the first fully scripted movie in which Sacha Baron Cohen has starred, but it's still essentially the same as his first two films, Borat and Bruno. He's still playing an outlandish foreigner with a weird hairstyle, he's still traveling to America to see how they react to that character, and he's still pushing every envelope he comes across, this time tackling terrorism, sexism, abortion, rape, and of course dictatorships. But just as Bruno felt a little hollower than Borat, The Dictator is worse than both of them, an uncomfortable mix of comic setpieces and a treacly plot about a dictator who just wants to be loved.
What's weird is that if often feels just a few steps away from succeeding. The script, written by a huge team of people including Baron Cohen, comes up with a number of good zingers, and throws the dictator Admiral General Aladeen into situations just ridiculous enough to be hilarious. The opening montage, in which we meet the General as the pampered ruler of Wadiya, shows him hosting his own Olympics in which he shoots the competition, or the palace with topiaries shaped like the General's head-- funny, silly stuff. And with Larry Charles reuniting with Baron Cohen for the third time after Bruno and Borat, he seems totally capable of bringing out Baron Cohen's best lines and impulses, and in the film's best scenes-- often montages set to pseudo-Arabic covers of pop songs like "9 to 5"-- he does just that.
But it quickly becomes clear that the team behind The Dictator have a lot more jokes in mind than an actual story, or even a concrete character to put in the center of it. Unlike Bruno and Borat, who felt really specific in their eccentricities and lovable obnoxious traits, General Aladeen is more like a collection of gags, prone to violence or outrageous statements not because they make sense for the character, but because they'll get a laugh. When he travels to New York to visit the United Nations only to be overthrown by his brother (Ben Kingsley) and replaced with a double, General Aladeen is adrift without his nation of sycophants, and winds up taken in by organic grocery store owner Zoe (Anna Faris), who sees him as a distressed political exile. Aladeen has paid beautiful women for sex all his life, and it makes sense for him to be disgusted by Zoe's overalls and hairy armpits, which he is… until the plot mechanics start up and he falls for her anyway.
It's the same thing when Aladeen teams up with Nadal (Jason Mantzoukas), the scientist he banned from Wadiya and tried to execute. Nadal has no reason to trust him, and the team-up makes no sense except that the plot needs to get there. Or when Aladeen and Nadal take a helicopter trip to scout out the hotel where he's planning to overthrow his stand-in, and despite the fact that we've only seen Aladeen and everyone in Wadiya speak English, they start chatting in a fake Arab-sounding language. The previous scene had Nadal insisting to Aladeen to seem as American as possible, to the point that he's wearing an American flag sweatsuit. But on the helicopter tour, which of course includes two stunned Midwesterners, Nadal and Aladeen happily chat about cars in their "native" tongue, which of course sounds like they're plotting the next 9/11.
That scene could have been so funny in the proper context, and the spirit of the joke-- paranoid Americans mistaking every brown-skinned man as a terrorist-- is both silly and politically relevant. But the lack of setup is just lazy, and it speaks to The Dictator's conflicting motives of telling a joke at every turn and actually telling a good story. Most scenes either go on too long-- Charles's comic timing in the edits seems badly off-- or takes the joke too far, and eventually The Dictator feels stuck spinning its wheels, with a character who can't really develop and a story that won't go anywhere surprising. There's enough good material in there to earn some laughs, but so many of them seem compromised or on the verge of something even better. Sacha Baron Cohen is at the point in his career where his every comedic whim can be realized, but in The Dictator he's still stuck in a vehicle where he can't quite reach his full potential.