1. There's a scene toward the end of The Dictator when you can see, finally, why Sacha Baron Cohen decided to wrap a whole movie around Admiral General Aladeen, the ruthless, clueless dictator of fictional country Wadiya. Without giving away any plot details, Aladeen is speaking to the United Nations about how good Americans have it, how in his country, "our leaders just wage war on whoever we want, for no reason," and "one percent of the population controls 99 percent of the wealth, and everyone just goes along with it," and so on. It's an obvious joke, but one that still cuts; Baron Cohen is at his best when he is skewering America by combining his removed, almost clinical British precision with a large smattering of surreal, over-the-top scatology. (Figurative and otherwise.) It's the first time in the entire film that you understand why he went through all the trouble, why he created this one-note character and stuck with him, doggedly, through a breezy-but-still-stretched 90-minute running time. I'd spent most of the film wondering, and that scene at last explained it. I'm still not sure I understand it.
2. The shame is that it takes that long. Baron Cohen's Aladeen is not one of Baron Cohen's more versatile characters, to say the least. Borat might have been one note, but that note was desperate to join other notes; you could put him in any room anywhere in America, and you could find something comic to bounce him off of. Ali G and Bruno, while broader, were similar; the laughs, such as they were, came from people's reactions to them, not necessarily the characters themselves. In The Dictator, though, Baron Cohen places himself at the center of the story and forces himself to do all the heavy lifting; you have to find General Aladeen inherently funny to make it through the film and laugh at the funny things he's doing. But this character just isn't strong enough to carry all that weight. This is the first time Baron Cohen has felt schlocky and repetitive, in that disturbing, trying-too-hard Mike Myers way. Among Sacha Baron Cohen characters, this is definitely his Love Guru, or his Little Nicky. You can see him straining for laughs, rather than having them just naturally appear, and explode.
3. This is not to say that The Dictator is terrible, or that it doesn't have some legitimate laughs. Baron Cohen has decided, now that he and his characters are too famous to sneak up on people anymore, to fill in the gaps with essentially machine-gun jokes, sort of his version of a Zucker brothers film. A lot of them miss, but not all of them, and the movie has the same sort of cheerful, whatever! repulsiveness of some of Borat's more notorious bits. (Baron Cohen is definitely not afraid to careen crazily over the edge; I have to say, I was pretty amazed to see a big-studio comedy in the year 2012 make jokes about its main character raping and killing teenage girls.) There's also a hilarious bit involving Megan Fox and other celebrities available to world leaders for the right price. It's just that when you consider the expectations we all had for Baron Cohen, it's almost discouraging to see him let his foot off the gas a bit. This feels daring in a comedy sense, but not in a real-world sense. This movie is never dangerous; it never feels like Baron Cohen is getting away with anything.
4. Maybe it's because The Dictator takes the form and structure of a rom-com, and its situations, rather than forming organically, feel constructed and controlled by a screenplay. (Putting this dictator in a health food store in Brooklyn surely sounded funnier than it plays here.) But you sort of have to tether General Aladeen to an artificial story because he so suffocates the whole film; he's such a big, loud character that everyone else just sort of recedes and watches him work. This is the opposite of how a Baron Cohen movie should work, and it's particularly frustrating because it strands so many talented comic actors, from Jason Mantzoukas to John C. Reilly to poor Anna Faris, who I'm starting to think is just never going to break out the way we always want and expect her to. (She's a crunchy stock character here, who improbably falls in love with Aladeen because ... well, because the movie needs an ending.) Every time a gag scores—like the deeply offensive and hilarious Wii games General Aladeen plays in his castle—we get back to Baron Cohen tap-dancing like crazy to keep us entertained. This is not a character who can hold the center of a movie for 90 minutes.
5. This'll surely be the last type of movie like this for Baron Cohen. Roles like this are going to be gone soon, if they're not already; you can only be The Guy Who Used To Be Borat for so long until you just become The Guy Trying Not To Be Known As Borat And Failing. And even though The Dictator doesn't entirely work—perhaps because it doesn't entirely work—I think it'll be good for Baron Cohen to stop trying to find his Next Big Gimmick Character and stop working with director Larry Charles, a funny guy who has plodding narrative sense and a limited cinematic eye. Baron Cohen's done fine supporting work in Sweeney Todd and Hugo, and he'll be Monsieur Thernardier in the upcoming Les Miserables. (His exit from Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained was a real disappointment, but you've gotta have big hopes to see him playing Freddy Mercury, another long-gestating project.) This stage of his career is probably over, and after watching him trying to wring laughs from General Aladeen for an hour-and-a-half, then toss in a speech at the end to attempt to remind us of what this was all about in the first place ... that's without question for the best.
Related on Gawker
Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch.