The Dictator feels almost exactly like a Saturday Night Live movie from the 90s. Like the SNL movies, The Dictator has a central character who is constructed from two-dimensional schtick, one who would probably be delightful in disconnected sketches presented every couple of weeks. The SNL movies never figured out how to take these sketch characters - the Ladies Man, Mary Katherine Gallagher, the Roxbury Guys - and put them into a feature length story. And so their schtick became repetitive and irritating and the movies themselves were just simply bad.
The Dictator isn’t as bad as Superstar or It’s Pat, but that’s not high praise. Sacha Baron Cohen is once again putting on a wacky accent to play an offensive foreigner, but this time he’s less good-natured than the likes of Borat and Bruno. Admiral General Aladeen is the petty tyrant of the nation of Wadiya, and he’s a conglomeration of all the stupid, insular, bizarre dictators we’ve known over the past few decades. He holds a Wadiyan Olympics and makes sure he wins all the medals, he has awarded himself four Wadiyan Golden Globes for acting, he’s the Chief Surgeon of Wadiya, and he’s changed over 300 words in the Wadiyan language to simply be “Aladeen” (which actually leads to some funny jokes). He’s the personification of the strange mix of evil and odd that comes when men get supreme power.
Through a series of poorly executed scenes that barely cut together, Aladeen is shorn of his signature beard and set adrift in the streets of New York City while a double takes his place - all in order to sell Wadiya’s valuable oil to a bunch of the usual suspect oil companies. He ends up with Zoe (Anna Faris, looking very worn out from her time in the Scary Movie brothel), who hilariously (?) enough is a vegan feminist environut, ie, everything exactly the opposite of Aladeen. Stuff happens and then the movie ends.
Some of the individual sequences of The Dictator are funny. If they were taken on their own, as a skit - The Dictator Works In An Organic Food Co-op, The Dictator Gets Tortured, The Dictator Delivers A Baby, The Dictator Comes To Appreciate Yiddish, The Dictator Goes To A Wake - they might work. In the movie they’re simply disjointed gags, barely strung together, all riffing on exactly the same joke again and again. He’s an offensive, racist, sexist maniac and he’s interacting with regular people!
The movie also trucks in what I think is the worst kind of racial humor - the wishy washy, mildly-scandalize-PC-people racial humor. There’s no edge to it and no bite, but you can imagine a crowd of Upper West Side liberals tittering that somebody made a sub-Archie Bunker joke about black people. There’s been a lot of talk lately about ‘hipster racism,’ (which mostly comes from people who embody the joke ‘How many feminists does it take to screw in a lightbulb?’*) and on some level it fits into that - but only by being essentially toothless. We’re almost 40 years after Blazing Saddles, so why does the race humor in that still feel so much more fearless and pointed than anything in The Dictator?
Also toothless: any satire. There’s one great speech at the end where Aladeen eviscerates the current state of freedom in the United States, but most of the movie is content to take lazy shots at Middle-Eastern despots. Dictators are bad? You don’t say! Even the jokes at the expense of Zoe’s grocery co-op feel like fish in a barrel mediocrity (and there really aren’t that many of them). Wouldn’t it have been more cutting to have the intolerant Aladeen find himself in agreement with an anti-gay preacher or a racist American idealogue? The film was reshooting until very recently (with the help of Adam McKay, who I will guarantee had a hand in the great satirical speech at the end), so where are the jokes at the expense of Occupy?
In 1940 Charlie Chaplin eviscerated Hitler in The Great Dictator, a film that - like The Dictator - uses a Prince and the Pauper structure as a base for its satire. Chaplin made a movie that is filled with righteous indignation at evil, and that ends with a sense of the possibility of mankind. It’s a film that’s funny and subversive and edgy and glorious. Cohen’s film doesn’t have a shred of that. Now we know why one is “Great.”
* ‘That’s not funny!’