'Borat' was hilarious. A much weaker follow-up, 'Bruno' still had its moments. But 'The Dictator' - the latest comedy character creation from Sacha Baron Cohen - is just dreadful from start to finish, lacking atmosphere, laughs and heart. The story concerns a North African despot who is forced to go to an emergency UN summit in New York or face war over his pursuit of weapons grade uranium. However, Admiral General Aladeen is betrayed by his scheming uncle (Ben Kingsley more or less reprising his thankless role from 'Prince of Persia') and replaced by a simple goat herder with an uncanny resemblance. He then finds himself lost in the Big Apple, plotting to sneak back into the summit in order to unmask his betrayers and take back the fictional nation of Wadiya - a plan which involves ingratiating himself with Anna Faris, the manager of a small ethical produce store improbably tasked with catering the big event.
Baron Cohen's shtick has long been divisive, since the earliest days of iconic street wigga Ali G on British television critics have been split over whether he's a genius satirist or merely a man without shame, determined to say whatever offensive thing he could in order to get a cheap laugh. I have never been in that latter camp, believing even his most extreme comic bits came from a good place, with a social conscience that enabled him to lampoon bigotry rather than simply being a bigot. For instance, the palpable respect and uncharacteristic solemnity Ali G reserved for legendary Labour MP Tony Benn during one of his comedy interviews seemed to support the belief that Baron Cohen's integrity ran deeper than the pursuit of easy giggles.
I'm not offended, even if (crucially) I don't find moments like these particularly funny, imaginative or inspired - my monocle hasn't fallen into my champagne flute in disgust that he dare joke about such things - but what does trouble me is that there doesn't seem to be any intellect or conscience behind his comedy at this point. He's just a man shouting "AIDs", "look, a black man!", "look, a gay!". He's becoming the unthinking school bully or the boorish workplace loudmouth, only with a budget of millions and a great deal of acting talent. He seems locked in a battle of one-upmanship with himself, in which he now feels the need to top each "shocking" and "taboo-defying" moment with another of increased savageness.
What is the point of 'The Dictator'? Is he perhaps standing up and saying "dictators do/say/think some pretty bad things don't they?!" If this is his point then I'd question whether it's really the work of a brave and near-the-knuckle comedy pioneer to satirise the world's most loathed dictators for the exclusive benefit of pre-existing enemies. Too often Baron Cohen seems content to indulge in broad racial stereotyping, such as when he arrives in America riding a camel. Jokes like these used to be defensible as sending up our expectations and prejudices, but here it just seems to be another throwaway idea and not a particularly original one. There is one moment near the film's climax where, perhaps inspired by Chaplin's similarly earnest speech in 'The Great Dictator', an oddly neutered Baron Cohen attempts to draw parallels between his evil dictator and the government of the United States. It could have been the film's redemptive moment but there's no real venom or force behind it and instead it comes off very weak.
It's also sad that in Admiral General Aladeen we have the least interesting character created by Baron Cohen to-date, the upshot is that we don't really even get to enjoy his Peter Sellers-like chameleon powers at their fullest. Then there's the litany of tired and (already) dated cultural references that jeopardise the film's long-term relevance: a play on the title of a reality TV series here, a dig at the expense of the Kardashians there; a cameo from Megan Fox. Perhaps the one bright spot, aside from a genuinely funny if overplayed sequence on a tourist helicopter, is the presence of low-rent comedy mainstay Faris as the love interest. Like everything else in the film she is characterised broadly and her comic moments are either crass or obvious, but she rises above the material to create an appealing character nonetheless.
'The Dictator' is out now in the UK, rated '15' by the BBFC.