Sacha Baron Cohen has never been afraid of pushing the limits of comedy. His Da Ali G Show was a hilarious look at people’s reactions in situations of escalating awkwardness. Disguised as faux hip-hop gangsta Ali G, flamboyant homosexual fashion designer Bruno, or clueless Kazakhstani journalist Borat, Cohen was able to extract very real responses from actual interview subjects. Cohen captured that spirit in the feature films Borat (2006) and Bruno (2009).
With his new film The Dictator, Cohen goes for a fish-out-of-water, stranger-in-a-foreign-land story. Unlike Borat and Brüno, The Dictator is a narrative constructed out of entirely fictional situations and characters. There are no interviews or encounters with real people. Everyone is an actor, and that is partly where the movie comes up short. The Dictator tries too hard to be funny, while feeling like a stale rehash of Adam Sandler’s much funnier You Don’t Mess with the Zohan. While there are a few laughs here and there, the film ultimately fails on all counts.
Before Borat, Cohen brought his character Ali G to the big screen in Ali G Indahouse (2002). That film placed the character in a fictional plot revolving around government conspiracies. It had little to do with the Ali G of the Da Ali G Show. It was a pretty forgettable movie, completely missing the mark of the show. While that film at least had a familiar character in Ali G, The Dictator is starting from scratch. Cohen's attendance of various awards shows dressed as his dictator character (prior to the film’s release) left little impression on the public. Unlike Ali G, Borat, or Bruno, there isn't anything real about the character of the dictator. As outrageous as those other characters were, there was still that spark of relatability, at least in terms of Cohen’s hapless targets of humiliation.
In The Dictator, Cohen plays Admiral General Aladeen, a ruthless tyrant who is developing weapons of mass destruction. Because of this threat, Aladeen must appear before the United Nations to prevent a military strike against his country (the fictional Republic of Wadiya). Aladeen travels to New York, but never makes his appearance. It seems there are people close to him who would like to see him ousted. Aladeen is stripped of his true identity and left alone on the streets of New York. He is soon befriended by Zoey (Anna Faris), a do-gooder who protests injustice in the world and runs an organic grocery store. Aladeen, now known as Allison Burgers (in one of the funnier running jokes of the movie), takes a job at the store while plotting to regain his dictatorship from the imposter Efawadh (also Cohen).