By Bill Wine
KYW Newsradio 1060
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — Sorry, Sacha Baron Cohen fans, but The Dictator is more Bruno than Borat.
In SBC-speak, that means the fall from grace continues for the British comedian who made such an immediate splash with Borat.
Comic actor-writer Cohen picked up an Oscar nomination for his 2006 script for Borat, which wowed audiences as a confrontational ambush satire with originality and freshness.
Borat was a mockumentary. It was gasp-inducingly outrageous, equal-opportunity offensive, and occasionally spit-out-your-popcorn hilarious.
Bruno was also a mockumentary, but more funny-peculiar than funny-haha, with “How far can I go?” replacing “How funny is it?” as a guiding principle.
The Dictator, the latest star turn from Cohen to emerge from his television series, “Da Ali G. Show,” is a fish-out-of-water spoof that’s somewhat less edgy and more conventionally structured than its predecessors, but that offers a disappointing number of real laughs — just a smattering, really — amidst all the presumbaly envelope-pushing outrage and offensiveness.
This time, playing the title character once again, he portrays Admiral General Shabazz Aladeen, the tyrannical ruler of the fictional, oil-rich North African nation the Republic Of Wadiya, so fascistic that he has abolished hundreds of words from the Wadiyan dictionary and replaced them with his name.
A megalomaniac obsessed with nuclear capability and wanting to keep the birth of democracy from his nation’s doorstep, Aladeen upsets Washington by announcing that his rogue state is on the verge of developing a viable nuclear weapons program.
The United States responds by threatening to invade Wadiya, so Aladeen visits New York City, hoping to explain himself at the United Nations.
Meanwhile, Aladeen’s duplicitous uncle and right-hand man, played by Ben Kingsley, pulls enough strings and uses enough body doubles to strip his sibling of his power and wealth and render him homeless and penniless in the Big Apple.
Cohen’s script, which he co-wrote with Alec Berg, David Mandel, and Jeff Shaffer, departs from the improvisation-heavy format of Borat and Bruno, and unfolds in a more conventional narrative manner.
However, there’s still a truckload of political incorrectness and in-your-face irreverence, as well as a generous helping of slapstick, satire, and silliness.
In contrast to Cohen’s prior culture-clash mockumentaries that were littered with elaborate pranks, this fully scripted comedy, with all professional actors and actresses, is a departure for him, although plenty of room has been left by Cohen and director Larry Charles for improvisation, as well as for pointed political observations that challenge our taken-for-granted notions of American democracy, most of them crammed into one late monologue.
Helping Cohen bring his latest cretinous, mean-spirited protagonist to the screen are Anna Faris, as the appealing owner of an organic supermarket and Aladeen’s romantic interest; John C. Reilly as a psycho security chief; and Megan Fox as herself in one of several brief celebrity cameos.
On the hit-or-miss meter, Larry Charles (Masked and Anonymous, Religulous), who also directed Borat and Bruno, produces many more misses than hits, as was the case in Bruno but not in Borat.
But what’s perhaps most indicting about this comedy is that the best jokes are throwaways and mumbled asides.
The result is that we feel we’re waiting patiently through a thoroughly self-indulgent archery match for the few-and-far-between bull’s-eyes.
So we’ll dictate 2 stars out of 4. This stumbling third burst of R-rated, feather-ruffling guerrilla comedy from Sacha Baron Cohen should go down easiest for The Dictator tots who don’t dismiss his humor as small potatoes.