I always had reservations about Sacha Baron Cohen's sucker-punching humor. Borat was hilarious, unless you happened to be one of the trusting Romanians who were mocked as ignorant peasants in the picture. Brüno, the less-successful followup, also had some funny moments, although not for Ron Paul, or possibly any gay people to whom Cohen's fake-homosexual come-on to the grandfatherly politician might have seemed stereotypically predatory.
In any case, after Brüno, Cohen's documentary formula for public humiliation appeared to have exhausted its possibilities – the six-foot, three-inch star had become too conspicuously famous to continue pulling it off. And so now we have The Dictator, a movie that relies, not on queasy embarrassment, but solely on its story. Unfortunately, the story – a parody of a Middle Eastern autocrat not unlike the late Muammar Gaddafi – is strained, and the parody dated. Targeting a lunatic Islamist would have been audacious, if risky (I think we can assume that Cohen values his life). Taking aim at a more traditional madman with a chest full of bogus medals and a fondness for hot female bodyguards is risk-free, but toothless – Gaddafi already parodied himself, and was for decades a figure of media derision.
Cohen, sporting an abundant beard and comic-Arabian accent, plays Admiral General Aladeen, witless oppressor of the fictitious desert republic of Wadiya. Aladeen is a dissolute buffoon (Megan Fox gamely submits to his simulated humping as an imported infidel sex bunny in one brief scene), but blithely threatening, too. (Announcing that Wadiya is two months away from producing weapons-grade plutonium, he notes with a broad snicker that it's strictly for "peaceful purposes.")
After some beheading jokes and Jew-shooting jokes, Aladeen is off to New York, where he's scheduled to address the UN. Trouble begins when he checks into his deluxe hotel ("Twenty dollars a day for Internet? What the fuck?"), and gets worse when he discovers that his scheming stooge, Tamir (Ben Kingsley), has arranged to replace him with the latest Aladeen assassin-magnet, a moronic double named Efawadh (Cohen again). After being shorn of his beard in another plot wrinkle, Aladeen discovers that he can't even get into the UN, where the imposter Efawadh, coached by Tamir, is giving his own address (punctuated by witless urine-drinking) to the General Assembly.
Now a nobody in a strange land, Aladeen is taken in by a cute Brooklynite named Zooey (Anna Faris, wasted), who runs a hippie-vegan grocery store. She arranges a job there for the marooned dictator, and soon we're invited to giggle at her inevitably unshaven underarms.
Throughout all of this, there are some very funny scenes – especially the one in which John C. Reilly, as a CIA torturer (or something like that), is given pause when Aladeen begins mocking his instruments of excruciation ("I've got one that has Bluetooth"). Mostly, though, the movie is a clothesline for sketch-style gags, one after another, interspersed with pointless cameos by Garry Shandling and Edward Norton, clocking face time in what they must have thought would be a fashionably edgy comedy.
But Cohen's sitting-duck satire is unlikely to seem all that edgy anymore to the pre-sold anti-PC audience for which it's been fashioned. (Even the requisite penis-in-your-face shot is anything but unexpected.) And the star reveals his standard-issue progressive political sentiments when he has Aladeen observe that if he were this country's dictator, the U.S. would be…pretty much the way it already is (Gitmo, and so forth). It's all too easy. The jokes may still fly, but the edge is gone.