A version of this review appeared in The Age, May 17, 2012.
Sacha Baron Cohen off his game can out-perform most comics in peak condition, which makes The Dictator worth seeing as an interesting failure. Perhaps fearing over-exposure, Baron Cohen has dropped the semi-documentary ambush format that carried him through his breakout hit Borat and its still funnier follow-up Bruno: this latest outrage is straight fiction, even if its director Larry Charles remains indifferent to storytelling technique beyond keeping his camera in place to catch the ad-libs.
Glowering in an Osama beard, military decorations pinned to his chest, Baron Cohen cuts an alarming figure as Admiral General Aladeen, supreme ruler of the fictitious, oil-rich North African nation of Wadiya (as in “Wadiya reckon?”). Crass, murderous yet oddly genial, Aladeen is Borat strutting the world stage, an embodiment of everything America loves to hate. Yet his brutish egoism also serves as a funhouse-mirror reflection of the US will to power: his personal tastes seem wholly Westernised, particularly when it comes to bed partners (an early cameo by Megan Fox redefines the term “good sport”).
Movie convention tells us that Aladeen is due for moral re-education, a process launched when he comes to New York to address the United Nations. Newly clean-shaven after an assassination attempt, he flees onto the streets of Brooklyn, where he's mistaken for a Wadiyan dissident by a hippie activist (Anna Faris, rather ill-used) who's prepared to tolerate his antics out of PC respect for cultural difference. Meanwhile, his place is taken by a gormless double (Baron Cohen again), a subplot that could have been developed further if the writers had any interest in narrative as such.
In essence, Baron Cohen is a very pure clown, with his precise enunciation and his tall, lean body like a stretched rubber band. If he makes bad taste a point of honour, it's simply because this is usually the shortest route to the biggest laugh. His unforgettable turn as the child-hating villain in Hugo proved that his talent is not at all reliant on outwardly “edgy” material; even here, one of the best routines proves to be innocent circus stuff, with Aladeen retrieving unlikely items from his pockets as he dangles from a high wire.
If Borat recalled the immigrant comedy of the Marx brothers, this time round Charlie Chaplin's Hitler burlesque The Great Dictator (1940) serves as a more or less explicit reference point (one wonders if anybody on the creative team has seen Chaplin's less-heralded follow-up A King In New York). Occasionally it's possible to detect a political meaning beneath the wearying torture and rape gags: the early scenes lend themselves to hawkish interpretation – chortling through an effort to justify Wadiya's nuclear program, Aladeen clearly qualifies as a regional threat – while the climax lays some progressive cards on the table at long last.
But for all his bravado, Baron Cohen (unlike Chaplin) seems reluctant to take the risk of committing to any definite satirical attitudes: nothing here is sustained, neither the feelgood redemption narrative nor the insistence that the jolly hero is a genuinely fearsome monster. Fewer punches are pulled in Tim Burton's new vampire comedy Dark Shadows, with Johnny Depp as a comparably out-of-touch autocrat more actively ready to spill blood.