It's a real shame that Sacha Baron Cohen's rise as a comedy star occurred after Mel Brooks stopped making movies, because the two likely would have hit off both personally and professionally. Beyond their shared Jewish heritage (a background that both men gleefully skewer at every opportunity), both of them are fearless provocateurs, pushing the bounds of comic decency right up to their breaking point. For those younger audiences who only know Brooks from his latter-day kinder, gentler movie parodies like Spaceballs and Robin Hood: Men in Tights, it's hard to overstate just how revolutionary comedies like The Producers and Blazing Saddles were at the time of their release. The latter movie in particular tackled racial humor with a boldness that's still bracing and you can track a direct line from Zero Mostel's brash, unscrupulous theatrical producer to one of Cohen's comic anti-heroes. In fact, we like to imagine the elderly Brooks uncorking a bottle of Manischewitz and kicking back for a double-bill of Cohen's first two features, Borat and Bruno.
In his heyday, Brooks would have been the natural choice to direct The Dictator, Cohen's latest star vehicle and his first since the little-seen (for good reason) Ali G Indahouse to be largely scripted rather than improvised. It's also the actor's first self-created original character since he left his menagerie from Da Ali G Show behind, although elements from his previous creations are still present in The Dictator's General Aladeen, including Borat's extreme anti-Semitism, Bruno's self-absorption and Ali G's studied ignorance. Those characters weren't also responsible for leading a nation, though -- Aladeen is. Having long ago seized the reins of power in his native North African country of Wadiya, Aladeen rules the republic with an iron fist, suppressing his poverty-stricken subjects while pleasuring himself through late night booty calls with Hollywood sexpots like Megan Fox, living large in lavish homes and sentencing dissenters to death with a single motion of his finger.
The plot, such as it is, finds this tyrant making the trek to America, where he intends to denounce the West in front of the United Nations. But no sooner is he on these shores than he's subjected to a top-secret coup, kidnapped on the orders of his right-hand man Tamir (Sir Ben Kingsley) and stripped of his beard and his identity. Left with nothing but his wounded pride and burning sense of rage, Aladeen wanders the streets of New York, eventually encountering a granola-eating Brooklyn hipster type named Zoey (Anna Faris), who gives him a job at her organic grocery co-op. With the help of Wadiyan exile and nuclear scientist Nadal (Jason Mantzoukas), the deposed dictator attempts to regain his office before Tamir ruins the nation forever... by making it a democracy.
Although The Dictator was ostensibly shot with a script, there's a distinctly improvisational feel to many of the individual scenes (every conversation between Cohen and Mantzoukas, for example, crackles with spontaneous, off-the-cuff energy -- their contentious relationship is absolutely the highlight of the movie) as well as in the scattered, almost free-form way the story unfolds. The lack of a strong narrative structure isn't necessarily the kiss of death for this type of comedy, which is designed to be driven by the clashing personalities of the characters anyway. But because Cohen so thoroughly dominates the proceedings, there's little clashing to be had. Apart from Mantzoukas, who more than holds his own opposite Aladeen, the rest of the ensemble is completely steamrolled by the star to the point where they're reduced to gawking at Cohen's shtick, just like those of us in the audience. That approach worked in Borat and Bruno, where Cohen was doing his routine opposite real people, but when surrounded by skilled comic actors as he is here, he just comes off as selfish, grabbing the spotlight in a death grip and refusing to let go. Since his screen-hogging makes the movie all about him, when he's not funny, The Dictator's not funny.
And, I'm sorry to say, The Dictator frequently isn't funny. It gets real close a number of times, setting up a number of situations that are rife with comic possibilities, from Aladeen whipping Zoey's free-spirited store into shape with a healthy dose of tyranny to Tamir replacing his deposed leader with a double (also played by Cohen) who has all of his looks and less than half of his already low intelligence. But the film proves unable to fully exploit these scenarios, with Cohen and director Larry Charles frequently going for the easy anti-Semitic, anti-gay and anti-woman gag. (Poor Faris is the subject of a great amount of verbal abuse throughout the movie and the filmmakers make a grave mistake by not allowing her even one scene where she throws it back in Aladeen's face.) It's not even that these particular jokes are particularly offensive -- they're mostly lazy and obvious, lacking the wit that might have transformed the initial waves of groans and gasps into genuine laughs.
And that's where having a director like Mel Brooks aboard would have made the difference. In his best movies, Brooks expertly balanced shock value and sophomoric stupidity with high-concept cleverness; the famous campfire scene from Blazing Saddles isn't just an extended fart joke -- it's also a dig at all those refined oaters from Hollywood's Golden Age, your Red Rivers and Rio Bravos. Likewise, "Springtime for Hitler" (which easily ranks amongst the Top 5 comic set-pieces in movie history) inspires fits of hysterics both for its sheer lack of good taste ("Look out/Here comes the master race!") as well as its demented genius in staging the ne plus ultra of awful Broadway production numbers. The Dictator chases after and frequently achieves moments that are shocking and/or stupid, but often at the expense of what the film so desperately needs: cleverness.
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