The Dictator at 10: Why Sacha Baron Cohen’s fish-out-of-water rom-com was no Borat

The Dictator (16+, 84mins) Directed by Larry Charles **½

2009’s much-maligned Bruno proved two things – lightning doesn’t strike twice, and you can take a joke too far.

It was a big disappointment after the gleefully subversive heights of 2006’s Borat, when Sacha Baron Cohen befuddled, bemused and generally bewildered Americans with his Kazakh innocent. In contrast, the setups in Bruno felt more forced, the humor cruder and the end result not a patch on that other naughties fashion comedy Zoolander,

Unsurprisingly, rather than go to the semi-documentary style a third time, Baron Cohen decided to craft something far more traditional – a fish-out-of-water rom-com. Introduced as being made in loving memory of Kim Jong Il, 2012’s The Dictator is the story of Wadiyan leader Admiral General Hafeez Aladeen (Baron Cohen sporting an all-too-obvious fake beard).

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Gaining power of the now rogue North African state at the age of 7, he is the country’s chief surgeon, inventor of the pull-up, four-time Wadiyan Golden Globe winner (his movies include You’ve Got Mail Bomb) and holder of 14 Wadiyan Olympic gold medals.

With the demise of Saddam, Kim and Muammar, and Mahmoud “looking like a snitch on Miami Vice“, the world’s attention has turned towards him, especially now that reports say he is only two months away from enriching weapons-grade uranium.

Called to account by the United Nations, Aladeen eventually decides he must address this “gathering of snakes” in the “devil’s nest”. Traveling to a country he describes “built by blacks and owned by the Chinese”, Aladeen is determined to show America the folly of democracy. But what he hasn’t reckoned on is his scheming uncle, Tamir (Ben Kingsley), who has designs on deposing the despot and selling off all the country’s oil assets so he can buy his “dream house on Lake Como next to George Clooney” .

Sacha Baron Cohen is The Dictator.

Supplied

Sacha Baron Cohen is The Dictator.

The Dictator was another step down for Baron Cohen. A hybrid of Coming to America, The Lion King and The Prince and the Pauper, this actually feels more like an Adam Sandler movie, than something from the writing and directing team behind the likes of Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm, There are too many pop-culture references that are now hopefully out of date (although Wii Terrorist 2K 12 looks like a game we’d have loved to play) and pointless celebrity cameos (Megan Fox, Edward Norton, Gary Shandling).

Like Borat and Bruno, this is provocatively and proudly un- PC, but here the political points and social commentary are almost non-existent, swept away on a tide of sexist, racist and xenophobic humour. The central romance also feels forced, with the usually sparky Anna Faris (The House Bunny) looking lost as the close-cropped, hairy-armpitted feminist, vegan-collective leader who eventually falls for the de-bearded dictator, even though he constantly debases her (something that was extremely unfunny in 2012, let alone the more “enlightened” times of 2022).

There are a few highlights, including a discussion of Bin Laden’s bathroom habits, a demonstration of the perils of zip lines and Wadiyan versions of 9 to 5, Everybody Hurts and Let’s Get It On, but overall The Dictator lacks the wit, invention and spontaneity of Baron Cohen’s earlier work.

The Dictator is now streaming on Netflix.


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