General Admiral Haffaz Aladeen — the latest outsize specimen of male self-delusion created by Sacha Baron Cohen — has been a very busy tyrant of late. In recent months, the cartoon despot who rules over the imaginary state of Wadiya in The Dictator has crashed the Oscars, kidnapped Martin Scorsese on SNL, and sat for an interview with Larry King. His Excellency’s public relations campaign leading up to the movie’s release has been a coup, a testament to a unique talent for character improv from the British comedian who created idiot British rapper Ali G, idiot Kazakh journalist Borat, and idiot Austrian fashion queen Brüno. The movie itself, though, is a failed insurrection. Tethered to a script that, in a dismaying tonal turn for the mushier, requires the idiot North African oppressor to learn and love by story’s end, Baron Cohen’s demonstrations of political ”outrageousness” feel all too canned, planned, and defanged.
So, yes, the script (by a huddle of guys, including the star) is a problem. After some forced convolutions, Aladeen winds up working as an employee in a stereotypical Brooklyn-hipster quinoa emporium, where he reports to Anna Faris’ stereotypical vegan-type feminist chick with proud tufts of armpit hair. But the casting of well-known professional actors (including the likable Faris) also saps Baron Cohen’s strengths; he does much better playing off unsuspecting real people in documentary-style settings. Sir Ben Kingsley, in particular, flounders as a scheming member of his cabinet, unable to find the right balance between menace and straight-faced lunacy. Director Larry Charles, meanwhile, brings the same slapdash style to The Dictator that he did to Borat and Brüno, always happy to linger longer than necessary on the gross, the insulting, and the politically or sexually ”shocking.” What’s shocking this time is how tame Sacha Baron Cohen’s newest wild man is, for all the kerfuffle the comedian can stir up on the promotional trail. C?