Brüno was a turning point for Baron Cohen. With its relentless marketing campaign, the comedian reached a level of public fame that meant his comedy of public embarrassment had reached the end of the line. Well, unless he contrived to try punking an Amazonian tribe – and even they probably saw Da Ali G Show. So, with The Dictator he has moved to a more traditionally-scripted comedy, but sadly it shows precious little of the innovation and spark of his previous work.
It takes as its framework a very familiar fish out of water plot. Privileged idiot falls from grace, sees how the other half lives, and learns life lessons and finds romance. In this case, the privileged idiot is General Aladeen, dictator of the oil-rich North East African Republic of Wadiya. Aladeen is established as a murderous arsehole with an STD (think of that during the romantic subplot), and later reveals himself as a rapist. Oh, hahaha, what japes.
International outrage over Wadiya’s nuclear weapons program forces Aladeen to attend the UN in New York or face US air strikes. His closest advisor (a wasted Kingsley) tries to have him assassinated so he can use the UN address to declare democracy in Wadiya. This is a ploy so he can sell lucrative oil rights to western companies. Of course, Aladeen escapes the murder attempt and must gain access to the UN to stop democracy coming to Wadiya. To do this he enlists the aid of the former head of Wahdiya’s nuclear program whom he discovers working in the genius bar at Manhattan’s Apple Store (cue one of the film's genuinely funny jokes) and the manager of a right-on vegan collective whole food store (Faris) who has the contract to cater the UN meeting.
If the plot is safe as houses, Cohen's character allows him to wallow in humour based on racism, mild homophobia, and a lot of quite nasty misogyny (much directed at Faris’s character, whom he initially mistakes for a boy). Of course it's I.R.O.N.I.C, so it's all fine.
Frankly, anyone expecting anything else from this is deluded. However, you might expect some satire to sugar the pill. Exactly what the satirical target of this film is supposed to be was lost on me. Is it North African dictators? Frankly, the late Colonel Gaddafi’s actual UN appearances are more bizarre than anything put on film here. But it seems strange to satirise bloodthirsty dictators, because most of us aren’t fans of them at all. Is it America’s post 9/11 attitudes to middle eastern diplomacy? Well, there is precious little evidence of that. Sadly, the butt of a lot of jokes appears to be the victims of people like General Aladeen. Call me humorless if you like, but double amputees aren’t all that funny.
This is nowhere close to being as barbed a satire as Chris Morris's Four Lions – a film that created actual characters rather than cartoon caricatures. Cohen never makes Aladeen at all sympathetic or attractive; the man is a total cretin for the entire duration of the film. You could say it is firing in all directions, attacking left and right, but then so did Team America: World Police and that was funny! At the end of the day, Team America’s moral that pussies need dicks because they also fuck assholes who want to shit on everything, was actually a moral. The Dictator is a piss poor excuse for a satire. Minutes from the end, there are a few barbs thrown in the direction of the US brand of democracy, but it's a limp afterthought.
None of which would really matter if the film was funny. Sadly, it's pretty limp stuff. It's offensive, but nowhere near offensive enough. There are some embarrassing celebrity cameos, proving that some people shouldn't listen to their agents. It rarely provokes much of anything above a titter. At one point, a spectacularly misjudged series of jokes about raping children killed the atmosphere at the public preview I attended stone dead (unsurprisingly, there were no press screenings).
There are a few sequences that seem designed for the candid camera style of comedy Cohen used to trade in. In particular, an extremely contrived sequence based on a language misunderstanding in a helicopter with some tourists might have worked on unsuspecting Midwesterners, but comes over as terribly stilted with actors.
There is one good dick joke, though.