Above and beyond all else, comedy relies on the art of surprise. Ever laugh at someone falling over, or falling down? It’s because you didn’t see it coming. Ever chortled at a witty remark your friend made? It’s probably because they caught you off guard. This is, of course, a tremendous simplification, but it’s just about impossible to deny that humor and the unexpected are the closest of friends. This is why Sasha Baron Cohen’s first real exposure in the U.S., Borat, made him such an over-night star. This is also why his latest, The Dictator, is such a clunker.
Let us list the basic similarities between the two films (and Bruno, for that matter). A xenophobe hailing from a Middle Eastern country (Embodied in this episode as tyrannical dictator Aladeen) embarks on a journey to metropolitan America. Here, he is outraged by the general acceptance of all races and creeds, his bigotry coaxing out similarly inflammatory remarks from the closeted racists around him. He falls in love with an unlikely partner, has run-ins with random pop-culture icons, and waggles his naked body across the screen on more than one occasion. To put it delicately, The Dictator feels a tad familiar.
To be sure, there are some winners. Certain scenes play in just the outrageous, gross-out fashion in which they are clearly intended, but they alternate with sequences that compensate for their lack of smarts with an abundance of vulgarity. It’s not that The Dictator is too offensive; on the contrary, the avalanche of naughtiness becomes so constant, so berating, that the next supposed jaw-dropper just falls in line with the rest that came before it. Baron Cohen seems to have hatched this movie out of simple boredom, and writers-block. The fact that we’ve already seen this same flick, only in invigorating, gorilla style only makes it look worse. There are many problems with The Dictator, and about 13 jokes that solidly land. I’ve certainly seen worse, but here, Baron Cohen and friends slip up in one truly critical department: They forgot to surprise the audience at all.