DIRECTED BY Larry Charles
STARS Sacha Baron Cohen, Anna Faris
Sacha Baron Cohen in The Dictator (Melinda Sue Gordon / Paramount)
Love it or hate it, Borat, the 2006 mockumentary that turned Sacha Baron Cohen from a minor cult figure into a bona fide star, pushed the envelope in new and unexpected ways. And while it ultimately registered as a disappointment, so did Cohen's 2009 Bruno, which again found the filmmaker placing a fictitious character in real-world settings. It was probably too much to hope that The Dictator would operate in the same fashion, and indeed, Cohen has added something to the picture that prevents it from completely succeeding: a plot.
The early going is hilarious, as we witness how Cohen's Admiral General Aladeen rules the North African country of Wadiya (that is to say, cruelly and ineptly). But formula filmmaking quickly sets in. Aladeen's right-hand man (Ben Kingsley) plots to have his leader assassinated so the West can tap the country's vast oil supply; the scheme really kicks into gear when Aladeen arrives in New York to address the United Nations. Instead, he winds up hiding out, aided by a spunky feminist named Zoey (the talented Anna Faris, stymied by a drab role) and hoping to stop the simpleton who's doubling for him from signing a contract that would turn Wadiya into a democracy.
The picture never runs completely dry — a sequence aboard a helicopter is priceless, and Aladeen delivers an amusing speech in which the similarities between Wadiya and the United States are made pretty clear — but even long before Aladeen starts making puppy-dog eyes toward Zoey, it's clear that finally, perhaps irrevocably, Hollywood has conquered Sacha Baron Cohen rather than the other way around.