The adaptive process Sacha Baron Cohen makes for many of his characters is to plant a cultural or caricature-like approach to bigger ideals and chip away at the message buried deep below. For Borat, it was the perception of America from the outside. For Ali G, it was the publicity stunt and wild variety of the chav lifestyle and soon-to-be white gang-loving idiot stereotype that flooded the modern pop scene. For The Dictator though, Cohen leaves behind his biting cultural analysis in favour of something more streamlined and solely reliant on the comedic aspect of a dictator without cause or country. That change of pace is damaging, as it was a few years later with Grimsby, but not quite for the same reasons.
Where The Dictator seems like a feature primed and ready to get serious and critical of the powers it surely wants to lash out at, Cohen feels reserved and unconvincing. Collaborating with Larry Charles for a third (and final) time, the two feel off-pace with one another. Not quite working through the motions of this dictatorial fish out of water story as best it should be. Cohen is not at his best as temporarily reformed dictator Aladeen. What sticks in the mind so clearly is the generic track that surrounds his entrance and all the very weak, one-note jokes that stick around and, bizarrely, make up much of the story. Those that are “executed” by Aladeen’s will and a point of the finger are the butt of many jokes, gags that don’t work as the film wears on because the character is meant to be changing.
So too is the tide of democracy though, which Aladeen has bravely kept out of his country for so long by living like the tyrant Cohen clearly displays him as. Those moments are expectedly wrought but relatively funny. For all the same reasons as the caricature-like state flopping, other moments manoeuvre around the oddities that take centre stage of this feature and actually offer some surprising twist. It is hard to see where Charles and Cohen are headed, and harder still when Ben Kingsley and Anna Faris are offering their best efforts in supporting roles of relatively forgettable quality. Cohen has never been one to rely on gross-out or overtly sexual humour in a fictional setting, usually depending on the reaction of a crowd or passing bystander. Here, he is without his greatest asset. It is no surprise that, beyond The Dictator, his other fictional projects can’t hold a candle to Borat or Da Ali G Show.
It is neither cohesive nor all that relevant. Where Cohen would frequently pride himself on the honest and intense culture-shock work that littered his career before and after this fully-fictional outing, The Dictator feels out of place not just because it dials back the talents of its leading man, but because it does little to build on the stellar work Cohen had set out to detail beforehand. A few good gags here or there, most of them cannon fodder for the trailer, but a bulk of them relatively fresh. It’s just a shame The Dictator is tethered to cheap-shot jokes about race, creed and religion. The despot at the heart of it is an unlikeable figure indeed, but those around him are just as dull and unfulfilled.