In a recent season from his TV series, Louis detonated (no pun intended) probably the greatest fart joke I’ve ever seen. He spends about ten minutes of the episode's runtime running interference, so you never see the flatulence coming, but when it does (in a hospital delivery room) it isn’t just funny, it’s glorious. A fart joke done with wit and intelligence? I know it sounds crazy, but it can be done.
For about 15 or 20 minutes of Sacha Baron Cohen’s new movie The Dictator, it looked like we were in for that same kind of rare comic treat: a movie that delighted in being gleefully offensive while never losing sight of its brains. Unfortunately, the brains took a break for extended periods of time.
Baron Cohen is obviously famous for inhabiting his characters. As is his usual schtick, he’s promoted The Dictator by appearing on talk shows as the character and not himself. His last two films were based around personas he developed for his TV series Da Ali G Show. Both Borat and Bruno were films in which Baron Cohen played outrageous characters while interacting with real people – a sort of demented version of Candid Camera.
Collaborating with director Larry Charles (one of Larry David’s cohorts on Curb Your Enthusiasm, one of the best TV comedies of the past 20 years), both Borat and Bruno are uneven and don’t really work as narratives, but the parts that work are truly hilarious. Of course, working that way has a built-in law of diminishing returns, as Baron Cohen got way too famous to be fooling people who weren’t Ron Paul.
The Dictator abandons the faux documentary format for a straight screenplay, and it starts off brilliantly. Baron Cohen plays Admiral General Aladeen, the titular dictator of a fictional country called Wadiya. As the film opens, the supreme leader is working to enrich uranium to build a nuclear weapon. That leads to him being summoned to New York to directly address the United Nations.
The opening stretch of the movie dealing with Aladeen’s excesses and debauchery as an oppressive leader are terrifically funny. But, once he gets to New York and loses his identity, the film totally loses its way. It’s not terrible or unwatchable from that point on and intermittently some of the gags do work. But, the sharp, satirical edge the early material had loses its bite.
And, once the political material leaves the film, so does the intelligence. The film’s second act becomes dominated by jokes about poop and breast milk, among other things. Those jokes could be smart and funny, but they aren’t. It’s as if the writers tuned out mentally for the more scatological material or didn’t think both concepts could work together at the same time. So, what’s left is a film that seems to be playing to different audiences at various times. And, there’s a gross-out childbirth scene in which Larry Charles totally recycles a cell-phone-in-a-vagina gag from Curb that was much smarter and funnier the first time around.
The film rallies a bit in the last act as Aladeen gives a speech about the virtues of autocratic rule that kind of eviscerates where the United States happens to be at this particular place and time. Once the political satire came back into play, so did the higher IQ points.
Which is a shame, as Baron Cohen is a smart guy with clearly something to say.