Historical entertainment planned for joint celebration of three Southwest Arkansas milestone anniversaries
Maybe a quarter of the attempted laugh lines in "The Dictator" really land, but it starts one-for-one. Before the title screen appears, a somber opening graphic dedicates the film to the memory of Kim Jong-il.
The deceased North Korean dictator/nutbar probably did serve as more than token inspiration for Sacha Baron Cohen's titular tyrant. The "Ali G" creator plays Admiral General Aladeen, a monomaniacal brat who as a boy inherited control of the Republic of Wadiya, a sandpile atop an ocean of oil on the African side of the Red Sea. Aladeen runs his country as a mashup of North Korean cult-of-personality (he has changed multiple Wadiyan words to his own name) and Saddamesque opulence. He beds a parade of paid celebrity schtups (Megan Fox obliges as synecdoche), festoons himself with military ribbon bars, taxis about in gold-plated SUVs and wins every athletic or acting contest he enters. Life is all grapes and hosannas in his bubble of unaccountable narcissism.
Aladeen's a big spender but could be doing more to exploit the oil reserves, so his fuming uncle, played by — whoa, is that Ben Kingsley? Anyway, his uncle schemes to have him whacked. On a trip to New York for a speech to the United Nations, Aladeen is kidnapped and replaced by a double who announces to the world that Wadiya will be a democracy, open for business. The real Aladeen, seeing this, aims to avert the disaster that would be democracy. Seeing him as a helplessly dispossessed Wadiyan, Anna Faris enters as a helpful co-op grocery manager who embodies every cliché about effete liberal well-meaners, down to the hirsute armpits and nauseating kindness. Thus is set in motion New York's strangest romantic pairing since King Kong and Fay Wray.
The humor in "The Dictator" splatters an even broader blast zone than Cohen's previous films, "Borat" and "Bruno." Those took aim at Americans' prejudice and vanity, both by dropping the Cambridge-trained Cohen into contrived situations with real people whose honest reactions lent a documentary air to the comedies. "The Dictator" goes fully scripted but still plumbs the same setup for its laughs: ambiguously accented foreigner drops into America; locals, believing themselves broadminded, welcome his obvious maladaptations as cultural markers to be tolerated. This allows Cohen to make highly racist, sexist, xenophobic jokes under the guise of putting his characters (real or fictional) in position to react to racism, sexism and xenophobia. It's amusing in "The Dictator" but it was funnier in "Borat" and "Bruno," when average jerks on the street were confronted with this warped social experiment. When Cohen stacks the deck with a shrill granola-sprite like Faris, the audience no longer gets to cringe along with the unsuspecting mark. Instead we just feel mean.
Not all the jokes flop because they're lazily cruel. Many flop simply because they're not very funny. Larry Charles, the one-time "Seinfeld" writer and director of "Borat" and "Bruno," paces much of the dialogue as if he's expecting a laugh track to fill empty space. Several of the bits between Cohen and his deposed nuclear mastermind, played by Jason Mantzoukas, make two minutes feel like 10, like listless improv, while other montage gags hit or miss seemingly at random. Even an inspired late speech comparing the American system to autocracy can't rescue the preceding 80 minutes. By the obligatory end-credit outtakes, "The Dictator" has at turns tickled, offended and bored just about everyone in the house.