In analyzing Sacha Baron Cohen and the array of offbeat characters he's created, it's clear that it's become a matter of diminishing returns.
In 2006's "Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan," the observations of his bumbling, thoroughly inappropriate foreign TV journalist provided sharp, satirical insight into our prejudices and foibles. Three years later, "Bruno" felt like a one-note gimmick, with his flamboyantly gay Austrian fashion correspondent merely trying to shock everyone with his flamboyant gayness.
Now, Baron Cohen is back with "The Dictator," his least-focused film yet, despite the fact that it has an actual script compared to the guerrilla-style mockumentaries that preceded it.
Baron Cohen stars as Admiral General Aladeen, who has ruled the oil-rich, fictitious north African nation of Wadiya cruelly and cluelessly since he was 7 years old. Aladeen oppresses his people from the comfort of his sprawling, opulent palace, sleeps with movie stars (including Megan Fox in a cameo) and orders the execution of his underlings for the silliest of perceived offenses.
But when he travels to New York to make a speech before the United Nations, he finds he's been double-crossed by his right-hand man (Ben Kingsley) and forced to survive as a commoner. Stripped of his trademark thick beard, Aladeen is rendered unrecognizable and ends up working at an organic grocery store in Brooklyn run by the androgynous, ultra-politically correct Zoey (Anna Faris, who's nearly unrecognizable herself with short, dark hair).
For a long time, it's hard to tell what Baron Cohen's point is in spoofing this type of despot: that torture and rape are bad? Could it really be that simple? A climactic speech Aladeen gives toward the end highlighting the benefits of a dictatorship hits close to home, but it's a long slog through hit-or-miss gross-out gags to get there.
Baron Cohen is once again working with Larry Charles, who directed "Borat" and "Bruno," but the results are more scattershot than ever. An early bit works in which Aladeen plays a personalized Wii game that allows him to kill Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics (anti-Semitism has long been a main target of Baron Cohen, who's an observant Jew). A helicopter ride over Manhattan that Aladeen takes with his former nuclear weapons expert (Jason Mantzoukas) creates some cultural misunderstandings that freak out the pasty tourists sitting across from them - that's good for some uncomfortable laughs.
But more often, "The Dictator" relies on crass sexual jokes and easy fish-out-of-water hijinks. At times, it even plays like Eddie Murphy's "Coming to America," which was amiable enough but didn't exactly represent cutting-edge comedy. About two-thirds of the way in, Kathryn Hahn shows up out of nowhere, with no introduction, for the film's most graphic sight gag. Surely, there must have been more from this reliable comic actress, and her brief inclusion feels like the product of an awkward edit.
As always, Baron Cohen fully commits to this character and even manages to find some glimmers of tenderness beneath the cold exterior. Like Kim Jong Il (to whom "The Dictator" is dedicated), who was at the center of the brilliant puppet musical "Team America: World Police," Aladeen is just plain lonely. But playing this type of out-there satirical figure has really run its course.
Clearly, Baron Cohen is a smart, gifted and versatile actor; it's time for him to stretch his abilities and dictate to himself a new kind of challenge.
"The Dictator," a Paramount Pictures release, is rated R for strong crude and sexual content, brief male nudity, language and some violent images. Running time: 84 minutes. One and a half stars out of four.