‘The Dictator’ Review: Laughs Keep Sacha Baron Cohen’s Shaky Regime Afloat

Sasha Baron Cohen’s latest is a scattershot mess, but the film delivers enough solid gags to keep audiences from revolting

“The Dictator” tells a fish-out-of-water story about a Middle Eastern despot forced to live among New York’s common folk after an assassination attempt, and Sasha Baron Cohen is swimming in new shallows himself.

This time out, though, the writer-performer has created a full-on narrative, rather than foisting creations like Borat and Brüno onto unsuspecting civilians in a mockumentary.

As it turns out, a scripted Baron Cohen isn’t quite as fun to watch as one who’s madly improvising in potentially dangerous situations. But for all the movie's messiness and lack of conviction, Baron Cohen makes so many of his gags stick to the wall that it’s easy to forgive the film’s many flaws.

Aladeen (Baron Cohen) runs the oil-rich Northern African nation of Wadiya with an iron fist. Whether he’s ordering the development of a nuclear program, paying millions to bed down starlets like Megan Fox or ordering the execution of civilians for the most minor of offenses, he’s one of the most dreaded despots in the world.

Not that anyone would dare make a movie about someone so utterly irredeemable, mind you. In the screenplay by Baron Cohen, Alec Berg, David Mandel and Jeff Schaffer, Aladeen just needs to be loved (Megan Fox refuses to stick around for cuddling, despite his pleas) and he’s not even as powerful as he thinks he is (all the people he believes he’s executed have been exiled to the “Little Wadiya” neighborhood of New York City).

Heck, Aladeen isn’t even the villain of the piece — that would be his second-in-command, and rightful heir to the Wadiyan throne, Tamir (Ben Kingsley).

Tamir plans to kill Aladeen on the day before the leader’s address to the United Nations, replace him with a half-witted look-alike goatherd (Baron Cohen also plays Efawadh) and then get the fake Aladeen to sign a new constitution that will allow foreign oil interests to bleed the country dry while making Tamir a billionaire.

Aladeen escapes his assassin but finds himself beardless and unrecognizable in New York. Mistaken for a Wadiyan dissident, he’s taken in by organic grocer Zoey (Anna Faris) and teams up with exiled nuclear scientist Nadal (Jason Mantzoukas) to foil Tamir’s scheme.

Comparisons to Chaplin’s “The Great Dictator” are inevitable, perhaps, but Baron Cohen doesn’t really seem to have any kind of political agenda in mind. Aladeen is just another larger-than-life idiot in the comedian’s repertoire, but there are plenty of laughs to be had at his expense.

The egotistical ruler has replaced many words in the Wadiyan language with “Aladeen,” for example, including “open,” “closed,” “positive” and “negative,” making restaurant signage and HIV testing confusing, to say the least. The film also gets a few digs in at the U.S.’ new-millennial jitters, with Aladeen and Nadal’s conversation in Wadiyan about the ruler’s Porsche 911 making some fellow tourists very anxious.

It’s a good thing the gags work, because this slight comedy, clocking in at under 80 minutes, can barely be bothered with actual storytelling. It took four screenwriters to decide that Zoey’s tiny little Brooklyn tree-hugging store would get the gig to cater the signing of the new Wadiyan constitution, with diplomats from around the world in attendance?

Baron Cohen’s latest comedic regime is a shaky one — but hey, at least the trains run on time.