The Dictator, the new film from Sacha Baron Cohen and director Larry Charles, is both similar and fundamentally different to their previous collaborations, Borat and Bruno. Once again, Baron Cohen is playing a foreigner in America, an outrageous figure whose behaviour and attitudes challenge the westerners he encounters. The difference is that the people he meets are not unwitting members of the public, but actors delivering scripted dialogue. The change has some advantages, but something is lost along the way.
Baron Cohen plays General Aladeen, Dictator of Wadiya. While visiting America (a land “built by the blacks, and owned by the Chinese”) to assure the UN that his nuclear programme is entirely peaceful, an attempted coup by General Tamir (Ben Kingsley) leaves Aladeen penniless and beardless on the streets, with a slow-witted double in his place in the palace. He is taken in by Zooey (Anna Faris), a left-wing manager of a fair trade grocery, who loathes Aladeen and all he stands for; and soon, the dictator’s plans to retake his country are distracted by his growing affection for Zooey.
You might think that having an actual script (I’m sure plenty of improvisation went on, but still) might result in a more focussed plot than Baron Cohen’s previous films. That’s not really the case, though. The Dictator is still essentially a vehicle for another larger-than-life character; Aladeen dominates the film, with virtually all the characters being reduced to foils for him – the exception being his reluctant sidekick, Nadal (Jason Mantzoukas). You can’t help but wonder on occasion whether more comic mileage could have been made from including a least a few unsuspecting members of the public. The plot is serviceable but thin (it is claimed to be based on Zabibah and The King, a novel by Saddam Hussein; I would love to how closely). A number of scenes feel more like sketches rather than integral parts of the film. Some are very funny, but some (the funeral in particular) serve no obvious purpose other than beefing out the running time.
Some of the toilet humour gags had me rolling my eyes wearily (honestly, has there ever been a man in all of human history who couldn’t work out how to masturbate without help?). But there are plenty more that hit the spot. The laughs start straight away (the film is lovingly dedicated to Kim Jong-il). There’s a great scene in a helicopter which I won’t spoil, and Aladeen’s climactic address to the UN and the representatives of western democracy is hilariously caustic. I would have preferred to have more moments like this, and less defecating on passers-by from a great height (yes, that happens). Overall though, the film hits more than it misses, and is certainly better than Bruno.