** (out of four)
After revealing multiple forms of intolerance and the vast majority of his body in the hilarious “Borat” and fearlessly uneven “Bruno,” Sacha Baron Cohen apparently has nothing left to expose.
That could be why the comedian’s latest film seemingly exists to build up to one big joke, which should be news to nobody: That dictatorships—where a small group of people possess all the wealth and certain races disproportionately occupy prison space and women must constantly defend their rights—could see familiar territory in the U.S.
Admiral General Aladeen (Baron Cohen) doesn't feel comfortable in New York, however, after his right-hand man (Ben Kingsley) betrays him and leaves Aladeen beardless and helpless. To reclaim power before rebels from his (fictional) North African country of Wadiya manipulate a look-alike into signing a new, democratic constitution, Aladeen must align with a woman (Anna Faris) catering the UN summit with her vegan, feminist Free Earth Collective. As you might expect, Aladeen only endorses one of those words.
“The Dictator” suggests that inside this sheltered man who orders executions like they're free refills lies an emotionally stunted, lonely soul—who laments Megan Fox’s unwillingness to cuddle after he pays her for sex. That’s not a terrible comic angle, but “The Dictator” mostly embodies a vapidly childish attitude toward oppression without any actual satire. Maybe I’m alone, but I don’t crack up at the notion of a merciless dictator raping the members of Menudo. If you do, consider if that’s because you’d laugh at anything that mentions Menudo.
Instead of exposing the bigoted idiocy onscreen, Baron Cohen exploits the audience’s taste for the stupidly juvenile. That makes “The Dictator” less “Borat” and more “You Don’t Mess with the Zohan,” unless I missed the insightful genius behind Aladeen pooping on a woman’s head as he dangles from a wire above. The big laughs sink behind pointless shock value, especially when Aladeen and the underwritten Zoey (Faris) finally hold hands—inside the vagina of a woman in labor, where Aladeen’s already stashed a cell phone.
In 2010, the brilliant British comedy “Four Lions” confronted foolish extremism through hapless suicide bombers. Aside from pointed but routine nods to American racial profiling of people from the Middle East, “The Dictator” dares only to giggle at cruelty from a safe distance while, say, Aladeen learns how to masturbate.
Comedy such as this usually comes from someone far less talented than Baron Cohen, who could use a reminder about the difference between stupidity and an indictment of it. After being on the covered-in-ashes end of an Oscar prank, Ryan Seacrest surely would be happy to offer some thoughts.
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