Sacha Baron Cohen has always danced on the knife-edge of comedy, and with a style that is half acerbic brilliance and half idiotic slapstick, eventually he was bound to slip and stab himself on his own sharpness. Not that The Dictator is a career disembowelment, but numerous small chinks do appear in what once seemed to be an invulnerable exterior.
Cohen and director Larry Charles dispense with the pseudo-doc street-theater style of their previous efforts and stick to a more conventional rom-com format, which brings its own credits and debits. On the plus side, Cohen is hemmed in by the need to zip the plot along, and there's less lingering on uncomfortable silence. On the downside, the born provocateur is forced to create a real character we can at least try to believe as a likable romantic foil. The results are iffy.
After a dedication to the memory of the Korean despot Kim Jong-il, we get a brief biography of the supreme ruler of the oil rich North African nation of Wadiya, one Admiral General Aladeen, a brutal, self-absorbed idiot, whose favorite pastimes appear to be torture, rape, posing for portraits and playing terrorist-themed Nintendo games, like a Munich Olympics hostage simulator. In his gilded palace, he sports a wall of Polaroids chronicling all the celebrities he has paid to sleep with, a bored Megan Fox being the latest conquest. This pampered strongman is an imbecile, fairly convinced that his country's nuclear missile program is failing because the warheads aren't "pointy" enough.
On a trip to New York to address the U.N., Aladeen is abducted, and escapes an assassination attempt, but only after being shorn of his trademark beard and left to wander the streets. A crunchy, neo-hippie grocer named Zoey, played with wide eyes and tongue firmly in cheek by Anna Faris, rescues our man, and an attraction awkwardly blooms. Will the general overcome the coup, win the girl, and learn something in the process? I doubt Cohen really cares, as long as he can string together dirty jokes.
The big laughs are fairly far apart, and the outlandish, vulgar and shocking bits feel a tad forced. The real problem is that Cohen is attempting to point out the absurdity of prejudice, while dabbling in the most offensive stereotypes he can conjure. Assaulting anti-Semitism while indulging in Arab-bashing is self-defeating, even when the laughs hit the mark. Also, slamming barbaric despots isn't all that brave anymore, and with so many of them being recently dethroned, the message seems to have gotten out: Tyranny is bad.