Are the American films of Sacha Baron Cohen suffering from diminishing returns? 2007’s Borat was an unexpected hit, coming out of nowhere and becoming a genuine cultural phenomenon complete with its own catchphrases (“My Wiiife!” “High Fiiiive”). He followed this up with Bruno, a film that reused his prank show/shock humour formula to skewer American homophobia and gullibility. A common observation from audiences and critics was it similarity to Borat; that the makers were not ambitious enough. The box-office also responded anemically, grossing little over $60 million at the US box office. Needless to say, Baron Cohen had a lot to prove with The Dictator.
Abandoning the quasi-documentary format of his two previous films, this largely-scripted comedy sees Cohen as Admiral General Aladeen, the Gaddafi-esque ruler of an oil-rich Middle-Eastern state. In New York City to deliver a damning speech to the United Nations, he is abducted by the CIA and replaced with a body double in a nod to Saddam Hussein, who was known to have used imposters for his entire family. The fun and games come next as the cruel, racist, sexist and deluded Aladeen is forced to live like a mere commoner in Brooklyn, working in a organic supermarket for Anna Faris’ crusty, feminist shop manager.
Although Faris is a very accomplished comedic actor, her scenes never quite feel like they work. There are a lot of jokes about hippies and feminism, but all of them quite predictable. Aladeen finds a much stronger comic foil when he enlists the help a former Wadiyan nuclear scientist (Jason Mantzoukas), now living in exile. A veteran of the New York and LA comedy circuits, Mantzoukas’ improvised sections with Baron Cohen are hilarious, going some way to reproducing the red-hot irreverence of Borat. The fact that those scenes are so funny could partially explain why some audiences were disappointed with the final movie. It seems like they had the potential to make a film that had 90 minutes of pure hilarity, but their need to work in a standard movie plot also required some scenes that were less than explosive.
Don’t get us wrong, we liked The Dictator a lot: there are a lot of great laughs and some very memorable scenes. But simply because it’s not as devastatingly funny or outrageous as Borat, it will be considered a bit of a letdown. This is what it means to be a victim of your own success.
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