Two and a half stars (out of four)
For a satirist of such vigour and fearlessness, it’s somewhat disconcerting to see Sacha Baron Cohen playing the palooka in The Dictator, his new comedy.
Cohen’s role may be that of a ruthless military strongman, the fictional North African dictator General Admiral Haffaz Aladeen, but in reality he’s like an aging boxing champ, struggling to regain a title that came so easily to him years before.
A knockout win is still possible, but it’s going to be a round-by-round battle to get there.
Cohen was brilliant in Borat in 2006 but a near-disaster in Bruno three years later. Early indications from the relentless pre-sell of The Dictator were that he and director Larry Charles were trying a bit too hard with material that was a bit too soft.
Satirizing fascist nut jobs is hardly a new idea; Charlie Chaplin nailed it with his definitive The Great Dictator in 1940, back when this kind of comedy actually was bold and even dangerous.
But Cohen and Charles deserve kudos for departing from their usual formula of setting Cohen’s crazed characters loose in the real world.
The gig is up on that conceit — Cohen is now too famous — so he and Charles and their creative team have had to write a story using professional actors rather than credulous mooks.
They’ve also added a genuine rival (Ben Kingsley), a smart sidekick (Jason Mantzoukas) and a real love interest (Anna Faris), who all do more than just act as foils to Cohen’s ballsy brand of comedy.
It doesn’t start well. Aladeen’s mythical Wadiya isn’t that far a conceptual remove from Borat’s real Kazakhstan, except the jokes are cruder (if that’s even possible), more violent and strictly hit-and-miss. Aladeen usurped the throne of Wadiya from its rightful inheritor (Kingsley), who obligingly opted to become his personal assistant (cue revenge motivation).
We learn to no surprise that the heavily bearded Aladeen is barbaric, sexist and misogynistic, killing all who dare question or challenge him.
Events conspire to send Aladeen to America (shades of Borat again), whereupon he discovers that freedom is just another word for follicles to lose. He takes up with a holistic peacenik (Faris, very game), who follows world news but apparently is easily conned.
Much of The Dictator is like a Mike Myers movie, trading in juvenile slapstick, shock humour and the obligatory airing of naughty bits. And it’s often funny, certainly funnier than the homophobe baiting of Bruno.
But to use the boxing metaphor again, The Dictator gets close to a 12th-round knockout when Aladeen delivers an impassioned speech about why democracy and fascism actually have a lot in common — hey, don’t both regimes celebrate their “one per centers”?
The speech is hilarious and so right-on, you could imagine Barack Obama’s campaign team trying to figure out a way to use it against Republican challenger Mitt Romney. It’s one of the few times when a single scene redeems an entire movie.
It’s also a welcome and needed reminder that Cohen and Charles are still capable of great and daring comedy, when they really put their minds to it.
Peter Howell is a syndicated Toronto Star movie critic.