Despite first hitting American airwaves with the Emmy nominated Da Ali G Show, Sasha Baron Cohen is seemingly destined to be burdened with the expectations of an audience that only recognizes him as the mastermind of the comedy smash Borat. This 2006 hit, starring Cohen as a Kazakhstan on a journey across America, produced an iconic character, numerous quotable lines, and an apparent comedic genius the likes of which American audiences hadn’t seen in decades. It was followed by Bruno, an underrated film that was shunned by many moviegoers who were uncomfortable with its homosexual main character, and supporting turns in many more films. Now Cohen is back in a starring vehicle as The Dictator; the question that must be asked is will audiences be there to welcome the actor with big box-office receipts?
The Dictator is the story of Admiral General Aladeen (Cohen), the ruler of oil producing nation Wadiya in North Africa. Aladeen uses his power and influence to star in his own films, win every event in record time at his own version of the Olympics, and is working on building a nuclear program. Called to New York to speak in front of the U.N., Aladeen is betrayed by his second-in-command, Tamir (Ben Kingsley), who seeks to replace the Supreme Leader with a body double and take control of the country’s resources. Aladeen escapes certain death at the hands of his kidnapper, but finds he is unable to convince anyone of his true identity. He finds help in the form of Zoe (Anna Faris), a health food store proprietor, and Nadal (Jason Mantoukas), the exiled former head of Aladeen’s nuclear program.
The first fifteen or so minutes of The Dictator show a lot of promise. The scenes featuring Aladeen ruling Wadiya are among the funniest to hit the big screen this year. Unfortunately, once the film moves its setting to New York, things settle into a rut. Cohen has shown in the past that he can be a great observer of human behavior, and has an uncanny ability to point a camera in people’s faces and bring out comedic gold by showing just how ugly some folks can be, even when they understand a camera is recording everything pouring out of their mouths. In The Dictator, Cohen seems more than happy to settle for the mediocrity you would be likely to find in a latter-day Mike Myers film, and much like Myers, rely on a funny voice and makeup to pick up the slack and bring the funny.
On both Da Ali G Show and Borat, Cohen found success in short segments that came together to form a more successful whole. In The Dictator, we are given a more coherent plot and story device, but in the end we are handed a film that lacks any of the actor’s energy; if Ivan Reitman’s name had popped up on the credits as director, it wouldn’t have surprised me much by the end.
Perhaps that is the issue with Cohen; his talents need a less conventional style to fully shine. While he is wonderful in supporting roles with great directors (Scorcese’s Hugo from last year, for example), in starring roles he seems to strive with a more chaotic filming style. Cohen’s true masterpiece may lie in filming a movie that is filled with nothing but sketches, a Kentucky Fried Movie for the 21st century. While there have been many films that have followed the blueprint that KFM worked from in 1977, none of them have been particularly groundbreaking; Cohen may be the great taalent that can breathe some new life into the stale format.
The Diplomat starts off strong in its satire of a ruler gone mad with ego, but soon settles into a tired, generic comedy. By the end, it feels like any other mediocre comedy that has been released over the last decade. For those visiting cinemas this weekend, it appears to be The Avengers once more.