In a world where entire movie plots are spoiled within the length of a two minute trailer, The Dictator's bordered on false advertising. Its trailer not only covered some of the least funny moments from the film but was made up almost entirely of scenes from the first 15 minutes. What follows is something completely unexpected — one last send-up to the fish-out-of-water comedy, featuring the world's last dictator trapped in New York City. It is surprisingly great.
Perhaps fearing that Sacha Baron Cohen couldn't sell a traditional comedy, The Dictator's advertising department danced around the heart of the film and stuck to showcasing his normal brand of shock comedy. It rang false because that isn't what The Dictator is. It's a traditional scripted comedy with Cohen's stamp.
Cohen plays Admiral General Aladeen, the dictator of The Republic of Wadiya. Aladeen succeeds his father, whose dying wish was to keep Wadiya's oil out of the hands of other countries. When his plans to develop nuclear arms garner the attention of the United Nations, Aladeen is forced to come to New York City. His uncle, Tamir (played by Ben Kingsley for no other reason then the fact that he is Ben Kingsley), takes this opportunity to betray Aladeen and sell out Wadiya to big oil companies.
That set-up leaves Aladeen stranded and beardless in New York City, where he is mistaken for a protestor by hipster Brooklynite Zoey. From there, the film is pretty much Coming to America with a racist, misogynistic bigot. It may be a premise that's been done to death, but it hasn't been done with a dictator, and it hasn't been done with Cohen and his special brand of hilarious cultural examination.
The comedy bounces between racial/political satire, absurd situational humor, and dick jokes. You really never know what you'll get from one moment to the next, and that ends up being a blessing and a curse. The humor isn't always on point, and the odd moments where a joke is bad tend to be painfully groan-inducing. Thankfully, the laughs far outweigh the groans, but The Dictator stumbled just enough to keep it from classic comedy status.
That's still a pretty high bar to reach for a film that seemed like it would be a disaster. Some may find the brand of humor a bit too haphazard, but it's commendable that Cohen can achieve laughs from so many different angles.
When the big punchline comes, and Aladeen finally addresses the nations of the world, the film is sure to win over anyone teetering on the edge. It's a political-satire-masterstroke that shouldn't be spoiled, but provides some much-needed catharsis for any American frustrated by our current situation.
For every political joke, there's a dig at vegans, feminists, and ultra-sensitive hippies — few stereotypes are left on the table. Some of the best jokes in the film happen at an organic supermarket, where Aladeen is forced to make friends and go through the typical fish-out-of-water learning experience. There, Zoey takes his hateful comments as cultural misunderstanding, and her charm wins him over despite his repulsion at unshaven armpits.
With Cohen's face officially too recognizable for his in-character prank-work, it's surprising how well traditional comedy suits him. Next time he makes a film, the advertisers may want to be a bit more honest with their trailer. The Dictator is much better than that trailer implies.