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13 Jun 2012

The Dictator

The Dictator has flashes of brilliance but otherwise is a replay of Borat done as a straight comedy.

Director: Larry Charles

Screenplay: Sacha Baron Cohen, Alec Berg, David Mandel, Jeff Schaffer

Cast: Sacha Baron Cohen, Ben Kingsley, Anna Faris, Jason Mantzoukas

Sacha Baron Cohen's latest creation and his first straight comedy, The Dictator, may share a title with a Chaplin high concept satire about an equally kooky and incompetent power-mad dictator, but Cohen's approach is a mixed bag of low brow and high brow, vaudeville slapstick and sophisticated trolling of the Marx brothers instead.

If by now you still haven't a clue about The Dictator, then Mr Cohen's Dadaist high profile, year-long in-character promotion of this film and its eponymous character has been in vain. But for the benefit of those living under a rock the whole of last year, it would suffice to say that Cohen's latest comic character is based on the stereotypical two-bit tin-pot dictator with an oversized ego and a matching eccentricity and a set of outrageous beliefs.

The film chronicles this dictator's trip to New York City to address the United Nations to circumvent a pre-emptive NATO strike that will nip his nuclear ambitions in the bud and the misadventures that follow when his disgruntled uncle (Ben Kingsley) and ambassador (John C Reilly) rob him of his identity, replace him with an even more incompetent double in a conspiracy with Exxon-Mobil, BP, and China's state industries to institute 'real' democracy in his beloved Republic of Wadiya for all the obvious reasons.

How will a de-bearded dictator fare, fish-out-of-water style, in the crawling chaos of Big Apple? Will he regain his rightful place in the hearts of minds of his subjects, who must be missing his terror and whims? Or will he fall for the womanly wiles of the owner of a liberal feminist vegan co-op where he now works at?

Cohen explores all of these and more in his meandering Marx brothers style comedy. Yet precisely because of this approach, there are many missed opportunities. Aside from the film's short first act and a delightfully pointed closing speech skewering the anti-democratic aspects of really existing Western democracy, there aren't too many dictator or political jokes and satire. How about the idea that a fearsome egomaniac and strongman could be just a regular Joe if placed behind the counter of a grocery? How about the idea that a megalomaniacal, self-absorbed incompetent who rules by fear and terror with the help of an army of bootlickers is actually the man with the right qualities to run a commercial enterprise in the western world?

The Dictator sets us up for all that and sadly fails to deliver any of it. Plenty of jokes are spent on gross-out situations as well as rehashing the dictator as an uneducated misogynist, bigot, and racist quite lacking in self-awareness. It's like watching Borat all over again, actually. So the upshot of Cohen not delivering what he should have delivered is you might well be content with what he serves up instead – if you liked Borat.

Despite its inconsistent quality, The Dictator does bring the house down when its humour connects. We just wish Sacha Baron Cohen had spent more of his time and talent on the script than on his year-long promotion.

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