Much has been made of Sacha Baron Cohenís last effort, Bruno, and its failure to emulate the provocative success that was Borat. Despite some arguably genius publicity stunts, Brunoís limp-wristed wave hello was met with relative silence, many complaining Cohenís schtick had become too predictable. Perhaps embracing convention was the only way to counter this criticism.With The Dictator, heís pulled away from the stealth-doco approach of his previous two outings by embracing the mainstream instead. Sure, itís still fish-out-of water territory (with a dash of rom-com, this time), but the novelty of Cohen using tried-and-true set-ups feels fresher than youíd think. Itís almost as unexpected as the Queen popping up on a late night infomercial, and quite possibly funnier.
The plot (with its echoes of Coming To America) is of course nonsense, but provides Cohen ample opportunity to spit out a quick-fire string of jokes Ė with an impressive hit rate. For every ill-advised paedophilia gag, thereís an undeniably amusing and original riff on puppetry.
After arriving in New York on state business, a string of misfortunes finds the bloodthirsty General Aladeen (of the fictional nation of Wadiya) destitute on the streets, and ironically mistaken for an anti-Aladeen dissident by super-earnest political activist Zoey (Anna Faris), who takes him under her wing. Aladeenís glimpse of life on the other side of autocracy, and his subsequent quest to return to the throne, dishes up a veritable lol-athon thanks to Cohen and his co-writers.
As the titular character, Cohen inhabits a role that almost matches Borat for stereotyped accent and maladroit misadventure. Despite the mainly one-note nature of the part, itís to Cohenís credit that we keep watching, and indeed caring about Aladeen. But itís not just Cohenís superb timing thatís on display: supporting players are key to the filmís success. Cohen has found a gifted foil in Jason Mantzoukas (as Nadal, Wadiyaís top nuclear scientist) and Faris gives her activist love interest a dedication and earnestness that lifts the film as much as it grounds it.
Although the opening sequence is slightly clunky and rushed, the film settles into a good rhythm before long, and at 83 minutes the pace is brisk.With only one really effective moment of political satire, you might argue this latest adventure in scatology lacks bite. Be that as it may, at least itís not preachy - and more importantly, it will make you laugh.