The Dictator

Fri, May 18, 2012, 01:00

Directed by Larry Charles. Starring Sacha Baron Cohen, Anna Faris, Ben Kingsley, Jason Mantzoukas, Fred Armisen, John C Reilly 16 cert, gen release, 84 min

Sacha Baron Cohen’s latest effort is mostly misjudged, writes DONALD CLARKE

SO THIS IS what Sacha did next.

We’ve been worried about Mr Baron Cohen for a while. Borat still looks like a guerrilla masterpiece, but Brüno was perfunctory, and few of the comic’s cameo appearances have raised more than half-hearted smiles.

He has responded to his critics in unexpected fashion: by making an Adam Sandler film. The Dictator is not irredeemably awful. Indeed, it’s at least twice as good as the ill- remembered Ali G Indahouse. This is, however, not what we’d hoped for from the man once hailed as a comic genius.

Baron Cohen’s latest creation is

a middle-eastern dictator named Admiral General Aladeen. Making his home in a giant palace, he spends his days supervising the construction of nuclear weapons, playing anti-Semitic videogames and arranging the execution of anybody who looks at him sideways.

With the best will in the world, it’s hard to get too enthusiastic about Aladeen’s comic arsenal. The voice offers only minor variations on Baron Cohen’s Kazakhstani accent. His proud sexism and intellectual incuriosity also seems wearingly familiar. A shoehorned reference to Colonel Gadafy’s death and a plot that takes in pro-democratic demonstrations does little to allay suspicions that the Arab Spring – despite subsequent setbacks – has rendered much of the comedy redundant.

Oh, well. There is still some lowbrow fun to be had. During a trip to New York, the Admiral General’s sinister uncle (Ben Kingsley) organises his boss’s kidnapping and puts an even stupider double in his place. His scheme is to usher in a bogus class of democracy and manipulate his way into the vacuum left by the leader.

Aladeen escapes and ends up working with Zoe (the ever delightful Anna Faris), a left-wing, wholefood salesperson from some fashionable part of Brooklyn. He makes unacceptable comments. She bristles. But, hopped up on movie logic, they end up falling for one another.

As you will gather from that synopsis, the picture is not breaking any new narrative ground. Many of the jokes about unlikely doppelgangers appeared in an ancient Norman Wisdom film called The Square Peg. Sandler had a crack at similar middle-eastern fish-out-of-water material in the largely useless You Don’t Mess With the Zohan. Borat felt like a whole new sort of movie. The Dictator could not be more conventional in its structure.

And yet. The pitch for The Dictator does promise a journey into dangerous territory. The film does, after all, find a person from a Jewish background playing an aggressive, bigoted Muslim. Or does it? The script cautiously avoids any specific references to religion. At one stage, Aladeen even denies that he is an Arab. The harder you stare at The Dictator the less risky it seems. He’s just a funny man with a funny voice who happens to live in a northern part of Africa.

As the film progresses, Aladeen softens up sufficiently for Zoe to contemplate love across the ideologies. That’s nice. That’s what you expect from an Adam Sandler movie. But reminders of earlier narrative asides deflate any attempts to annex romcom territory.

Cohen genuinely appears to expect us to warm to his anti-hero. But hang on a moment. Some minutes earlier, the script revealed that Aladeen once raped 14-year- old boys while they wept. Could somebody, somewhere not have alerted Sacha to the nauseating clashes in tone?

There are certainly some decent jokes here. The relationship between Cohen and Faris could form the basis for a passable sitcom. But one’s ultimate impression is of talent squandered. You would strain to identify The Dictator as a clever movie. But it doesn’t quite work as a big dumb movie either.

Time to regroup, old man.