With The Dictator, Sacha Baron Cohen finds himself addressing a situation no entertainer wants to confront: What do you do when the shtick that was your bread-and-butter just can’t work any more? The Dictator eases us into a more conventional comedy setting for Cohen, beginning with a biography of General Aladeen (Cohen) courtesy of fake TV news footage. The capriciously iron-fisted ruler of the North African country of Wadiya inherited his rule from his father. His homeland is facing potential international military action in response to its weapons program, requiring Aladeen to address the United Nations in New York. There, his uncle (Ben Kingsley) arranges to have Aladeen executed and replaced by an easily manipulated double who will, much to Aladeen’s horror, sign a new constitution making Wadiya a democracy, one that will make his uncle very rich. Aladeen, of course, manages to escape, and he wanders into the wilds of New York shaven and unrecognizable as a reviled despot. For most comedians, this would be the cue for the tamest of fish-out-of-water humor, but Cohen, working again with his Borat and Brüno director Larry Charles, attacks the concept with his characteristic refusal to find anything sacred. Along the way, Cohen is almost certain to offend somebody, in ways that American film comedy is almost never prepared to attempt. Inevitably, some of the gags fall flat, and the stretch of The Dictator that takes place before Aladeen gets to New York isn’t nearly as inspired.
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