By MICHAEL WALTERS
By now, we’ve come to expect bad taste from Sacha Baron Cohen. He’s a man who traffics heavily in it, but always in the service of a broader more pointed social satire. He pushes our cultural boundaries, jumps over them, and then turns the cultural milieu into the butt of the joke.
In “The Dictator,” Cohen again finds a fertile ground for comedy playing a ruthless dictator of a North African oil-rich nation named Waddiya. The plot, such as it is, concerns Cohen’s dictator General Aladeen coming to New York to address the U.N., and trying to snuff out the seeds of democracy in his own country.
In addition to jokes about other North African Strongmen; racial stereotypes, Osama Bin Laden, 9/11, and of course, the torture of detainees all get a good skewering. But unlike his last two films (“Borat” and “Bruno”), Cohen’s film is entirely scripted this time around, and it messes with his comic timing. The rigid elements of standup comedy sometimes show through as he sets up his punchlines with a dizzying regularity.
But while familiarity may have robbed his humor of the surprise it once had, it has not dulled its edge. What we have is a comedy that at first blush comes off as more clever than laugh out funny, but the jokes have more meat on their bones than usual. It comes off a little like the absurdist intellectual comedy of Monty Python or The Marx Brothers. And if there’s anyone who can make waterboarding funny, he can.
Ben Kingsley, Anna Faris, John C. Reilly, and Megan Fox add support, but this is Cohen’s show.
I’m not sure “The Dictator” will be funny six months or a year from now. While the oppressive regimes of petty tyrants are always good for a laugh, Cohen’s film is relentlessly of the moment. And that could lead future audiences to find it hopelessly dated. Cohen’s film is a far better movie than “Bruno,” but it’s not quite as good as “Borat.” I was never doubled over while watching “The Dictator,” but I didn’t feel like I just wasted my time either.