We may have entered the age when the best part of a bad movie is not the trailer, as in days of old, but the pre-release prank. In the case of Sacha Baron Cohen’s latest vehicle, The Dictator, the celebrated moment came at the Oscars when Cohen, dressed in his character’s full regalia and flanked by two beauties, spilled an urn full of ashes (purportedly the cremains of Kim Il-Jong) all over Ryan Seacrest.
That in itself will earn the movie some good will; who hasn’t, at one time or another, wanted to douse Seacrest in ashes? But years from now, long after the film itself has evaporated from memory, that red carpet dust-up will probably be the only thing anyone remembers.
Actually, it won’t take years for "The Dictator" to disappear from memory. The film is a hash of gags, some hazy and some pointed, some funny and others just plain dumb, strung together by a flimsy thread of a plot. I saw it only hours ago and already it’s hard to recall what, exactly, the movie was about.
Cohen plays Admiral General Aladeen, the Supreme Leader and tyrant of a North African nation called Wadiyah. (Think: "Wadiyah, stoopid or somethin’?") Though the fictional country is in Africa, it might as well be located right in the neighborhood of Baghdad. Not only does Aladeen live in a sprawling palace that looks like something Saddam Hussein would have used as a vacation home (surrounded by sand dunes, no less), but when Aladeen travels to New York to address the UN he makes his entrance into New York astride a camel. The movie is chock-full of other jibes, as well, such as a rendition of REM’s "Everybody Hurts" in Arabic.
You can thus forgive the confusion, if not the bigotry, of an American security expert (John C. Reilly) who greets Aladeen with the assurance that everybody, including "those blue tree-hugging queers from ’Avatar’ " are, in his view, "A-rabs."
Americans and the UN are not Aladeen’s chief concern, though. His right-hand man, played by Ben Kingsley (he fails to elevate the movie; rather, it drags him down), hatches a scheme to replace Aladeen with a body double (also played by Cohen) and then free Wadiyah from Aladeen’s oppression--in order to sell the country out to the oppression, and exploitation, of global oil interests. (When informed that one site for future lucrative oil fields are "densely populated," his solution is simple, as well as final: "Depopulate them!")
Through a series of screwy twists, Aladeen finds himself deposed and working in a feminist vegan coop run by a slightly mannish waif played by Anna Farris. (A talent of cruelty and dominance can be useful in the workplace; Aladeen’s management style whips the lazy, thieving staff into shape.) More screwy twists ensue, reuniting Aladeen with a nuclear scientist he had thought he had executed; the two concoct an elaborate plan to infiltrate the upscale hotel where Wadiyah’s officials are staying, replace the body double with the genuine Aladeen, and prevent Wadiyah from falling into the hands of the free market.
The film feels like a comedy sketch, and at 83 minutes it’s not much longer than a sketch anyway. But it’s long enough to drag; though "The Dictator" offers some roaring laughs (all of them designed for maximum yield on the crude on offensive humor scale) it often falls into tedium. The minimal plot doesn’t keep the audience’s attention, but then it doesn’t keep Cohen’s attention and that of his co-writers, and the movie wanders into jokes about masturbation, defecation, and Cohen’s manhood, which seems determined to make a cameo appearance in each of his films.
"The Dictator" commands attention and guffaws, but it doesn’t rule the way Cohen’s best work, "Borat," does.