By Richard Schickel
No movie dedicated to Kim Jong Il can be all bad.
On the other hand, “The Dictator,” the product of Sacha Baron Cohen, cannot be all good either.
He’s a scattershot satirist, blending the good, the bad and the merely vulgar in a fast-paced, seemingly careless, but often rather shrewd way. You could say that sometimes the best thing in his films is the vulgarity. There is something paradoxically innocent about it, as if Baron Cohen is a preteen trying out the odd flatulence joke to see whether we will wince at it or just put it down as youthful high spirits.
In “The Dictator,” Baron Cohen plays Aladeen, the leader of a mythical, oil-rich North African state who is eager to join the nuclear club. He is of the opinion that the rocket designed to deliver his weapon should be more “pointy” than snub-nosed, and that discussion is brief and digressive. Sometimes it seems that the film is all digressions, which is not necessarily a bad thing.
As the dictator Aladeen, Baron Cohen sets off to New York City where he intends to address the U.N. General Assembly about his world-stage intentions. This involves drinking a large tumbler of his own urine. Baron Cohen is not an especially subtle comic operative, nor one who is able to stick to the point for very long.
His real business turns out to be falling in love with Zoey (Anna Faris), the owner of a health food store: liberal-minded, innocent and about as inappropriate a girlfriend for Aladeen as you can imagine—that is, if you can also imagine him as a serious threat to world stability, which is of course impossible. You know their love is true when their fingers entangle inside the vagina of a woman who is about to deliver a child. If you want to know by what logic this tender moment arrives, then I think I can safely say that “The Dictator” is not the movie for you. Baron Cohen is a walking, talking shaggy dog story, and narrative logic is not high on his to-do list. Nor is wit of the Wildean epigram. Or, for that matter, elegant satirical structure.
Under Larry Charles’ point-and-shoot direction, the film plows along from gag to gag, some good, some bad, some scatological, some mildly sexual in their silly, childish ways. What saves the show by a narrow margin is what we might call its good nature. There is not a vicious bone in Baron Cohen’s body. I don’t think he wants—or is capable of—real bite in his humor. Whether he is having a discussion with John C. Reilly about the efficacy of various torture instruments or hanging off a wire over a Manhattan street, he’s always just kidding. He never lurches for the jugular.
This is all right in a way. You chuckle your way through his movies, secure in the knowledge that the feeble jokes will be brief and that the somewhat better ones will soon arrive. I think Baron Cohen is capable of something more, but he is prone to the comedian’s fatal flaw: He wants to be liked. He wants to be welcomed back into our lives every few years with a genial comedy that may, at times, lean a little bit toward the transgressive, but doesn’t want to stay in that mode for any length of time. Baron Cohen may have more to offer. I’m not sure. Maybe he is an essentially sweet-spirited man traveling under false colors. Pleasantness is OK as far as it goes, and you’ll have a nice, forgettable time watching “The Dictator.” But it could have been much more, I think. C’mon, Sasha. Take the gloves off. Rip and tear. If you still have it in you. Or if you ever did.