I admit it, I wasn’t expecting to enjoy The Dictator, Sacha Baron Cohen’s new film in which he plays a dimwitted despot who finds himself down and out in New York City.
It was somewhere around the halfway mark in his 2006 film Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan that I fell out of love with Cohen’s shtick, in which he turns himself into a caricature of cultural stereotypes, puts real people into awkward situations, and then edits these encounters together into a semi-coherent narrative. He followed the same mockumentary-style formula with 2009′s Bruno, in which he pretends to be a flamboyant Austrian fashion designer, and early press for The Dictator made it seem as if it would be more of the same, with Cohen playing a Muammar Gaddafi-like tyrant from a fictional North African nation.
But lo and behold, I did enjoy The Dictator, which mines its comedy from the film’s talented cast instead of the reactions of people he pranks, and feels like a very different film than what we’ve come to expect from Cohen.
In The Dictator, Cohen plays Admiral General Haffaz Aladeen, an amalgam of Gaddafi, Saddam Hussein, and various other infamous real-world dictators, who has ruled over the oil-rich Republic of Wadiya ever since his father’s untimely death due to a hunting accident (involving “97 bullets and a hand grenade”). After refusing to let United Nations inspectors into the country and bringing Wadiya to the brink of war, Aladeen’s trusted advisor Tamir (Sir Ben Kingsley) convinces him to visit New York City to address the U.N. Shortly after arriving, he’s kidnapped and replaced with an impostor by his enemies, who plan to turn the nation into a democracy in order to gain more access to its oil.
While it’s not the series of pranks and awkward encounters that his previous films encompassed, The Dictator clearly isn’t a tightly scripted comedy, either. The jokes feel intentional and well-paced but never forced, and the cast plays off each other with the sort of relaxed, carefree humor that leaves you uncertain which lines were written into the script and which ones were ad-libbed. It’s the sort of film a talented improv artist shines in, and though Cohen is exactly that, he also wisely surrounds himself with other quick-thinking comedic actors.
By far the best of the bunch in Cohen’s supporting cast is The League actor Jason Mantzoukas, who plays an exiled Wadiyan scientist now working in an Apple Store in Manhattan. Mantzoukas’ character agrees to help Aladeen reclaim his throne, and hilarity ensues as the pair engage in an overly complicated plan to get Aladeen into the hotel where the Wadiyan delegation is staying. Mantzoukas makes the best of his time on the screen, and either delivers himself or sets Cohen up for many of the film’s funniest moments. The pair have such a great chemistry that it would be a shame not to see them in more films together.
No stranger to films like this, Anna Faris does a perfectly fine job as naïve vegan health food store manager Zoey, though she lacks any real comedic chemistry with Cohen in their scenes together. Her character basically serves as a target for jokes and the one person who’s always less in touch with reality than Aladeen. She also becomes the object of his affections for reasons that are never made quite clear.
Filling out the cast is Sir Ben Kingsley, whose role in The Dictator is essentially that of a straight man to Cohen’s exaggerated tyrant, as well as a brief but funny role for John C. Reilly. There are also quite a few humorous, self-deprecating celebrity cameos from the likes of Megan Fox and Edward Norton, among others.
Of course, that’s not to say all the jokes are a hit in the film. There are a few sequences that feel a little too similar to the awkward-encounter humor that he relied on for his previous films, and they feel out of place in a clever, scripted film like this. One or two scenes also seem to tilt the gross-out meter a little too far outside the film’s sweet spot, though each audience will probably have a different gauge for that sort of thing.
What really stands out about The Dictator, however, is what the film shows us about Cohen’s talents as both a writer and comedic lead. The film asks more of him in both respects than any of his previous films, and he rises to the challenge.
Going into The Dictator, I was skeptical of Cohen’s ability to be anything but a prankster, deriving his comedy from the stunts he pulls on unsuspecting victims instead of, well… jokes. His new film goes a long way toward changing that perception, and I can’t help hoping that we see more of him in these types of roles.
All hail the Supreme Leader.