A lot of brilliant movie comedians blow their loads early in their careers with their best stuff, collecting enough fans to stick by them as they get less funnier with each movie. It's happened to Adam Sandler, Will Ferrell and Seth Rogen, and now, with the OK-but-not-mind-blowing The Dictator, Sacha Baron Cohen.
One thing that's killing Cohen is his own fame. No longer will he be able to ambush people as Borat or Bruno for the sake of a documentary. Now he'll have to play regular characters with plain three-act scripts. Take away Cohen's ability to trap idiots into making fools of themselves is like stripping Superman of his ability to soar. Sure, he can still punch through walls, but he can no longer fly. Weird accents and speech patterns can only take you so far when you're not exploiting hapless victims for shock effect, and Cohen beats all the forced comedy he can out of his north African dictator creation, Aladeen.
Cohen is subtly making his case to be known as the Charlie Chaplin of our time by echoing Chaplin's Hitler satire, The Great Dictator. Like the creaky 1940 movie, Cohen's film mixes up a delusional dictator with a lookalike he also plays. And just as in the older movie, the not-so-great Dictator ends awkwardly, with a long, semi-serious speech that makes blunt political points. The biggest difference in the two movies is sex jokes. Cohen tries to play pubic hair, masturbation, misunderstandings about rape and homophobia — not to mention loads of racial humor — for his biggest laughs.
He's skilled enough to make most of the jokes work, but they come off more as stand-alone rimshots than snowballing jokes that build into something bigger and more consistent. Anna Faris pops up as Cohen's straight man and romantic interest, playing a hyper-politically correct Brooklynite caterer who takes Aladeen under her wing after he winds up in the U.S. and can't get anyone to believe that he's the real dictator after an underling has swapped him out for a body double.
The forced romance sucks a lot of the wind out of the comedy sails. Even though she's playing a character not meant to be taken seriously, Faris is too inherently sweet to be the continual butt of jokes that Cohen makes her, calling her mannish/boyish and overweight. Instead of rooting for the unlikely love to blossom, it's too easy just to feel bad for the Faris character.
Their relationship seems to have seeped in from some other, dumber movie, just plopped in to give structure to a shapeless brain dump of one-off laughs. When The Dictator is funny, it's funny enough to make you forgive it when it's awful. But when it's awful it makes you wonder whether or not it will ever get funny again. And whether Cohen will ever be as great as he once was.
Starring Sacha Baron Cohen, Anna Faris and Ben Kingsley. Written by Cohen, Alec Berg, David Mandel and Jeff Schaffer. Directed by Larry Charles. Rated R. 83 minutes.