“The Dictator” a shallow if amusing Cohen picture

It’s not the average Hollywood comedy that desires to lampoon American democratic policies, consumptive habits, perception of foreign powers, collectively “independent” sub-cultures, and Megan Fox. Then again, not much about the career of Sacha Baron Cohen has been terribly typical. A mild-mannered Cambridge graduate, Cohen has somehow become the face of contemporary crude comedy, mainly through his half-documentary, half-narrative films (“Ali G Indahouse”, “Bruno”, “Borat”). His newest effort, “The Dictator”, represents a segue into purely fictional material, and it lands with more of a thud than its incendiary predecessors.

“The Dictator” stars Baron Cohen as Admiral General Aladeen, the all-powerful ruler of the fictional North African province Wadiya. He is a dedicated, passionate man — however, that passion tends to be dedicated to the suppression of free speech and action. In the midst of a visit to New York City, Aladeen is betrayed by his radical advisor, Tamir (Ben Kingsley in an embarrassingly marginal role), who represents the outrageous cause of democracy. Aladeen, now replaced by a hysterically unintelligent double (also Cohen), is cast out into the city, only taken in by a hyper-“organic” activist type, played by Anna Faris. The couple, although radical opposites, seem to bond closely over their shared running of a yuppie trade-market, to say nothing of their plentiful body hair.

“The Dictator”, running at a taut 83 minutes, still manages to overstay its welcome and then some. But what almost always takes precedent in “The Dictator” is the need to squeeze out jokes whenever possible, which is both a curse and a huge blessing. One thing has not changed about Cohen here — he remains among the funniest people working today. His humor is as impossibly fast and furious as ever, often resulting in hysterical quips. But the down-side of this is its effect on the film’s narrative momentum: the pacing is lumpy and misguided, occasionally giving great length to marginal gags, and then condensing sequences of significant events into two-minute montages. It’s simply impossible to get a grip on this film emotionally; one is left breathless at the gags yet greatly underwhelmed by the actual context in which they’re presented. In essence: there’s nothing to this movie than what one receives at face-value, which wouldn’t be so large a problem were it not presented in a context of allegedly serious social commentary. C+

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