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Wednesday, March 13,2013

They shoot one-trick ponies, don’t they?

Sacha Baron Cohen wears out his welcome in record time in 'The Dictator'

by James Sanford
Perhaps you are old enough to remember the days when any “Saturday Night Live” sketch that got a few giggles suddenly became worthy of its own big-screen feature. Sure, “Wayne’s World” worked and “The Blues Brothers” long ago achieved cult classic status, but what about Al Franken’s “Stuart Saves His Family,” “Coneheads,” “Blues Brothers 2000,” Tim Meadows’ “The Ladies’ Man,” Molly Shannon’s “Superstar” and the almost unwatchable “It’s Pat: The Movie”? Talk about a lot of wasted money and wasted time.

In a similar vein, Sacha Baron Cohen’s “The Dictator” might have made a pretty good five-minute skit on “The Ali G Show” a few years ago; instead, Baron Cohen has stretched and padded a wisp of an idea into a movie that regularly strains to be outrageous and wildly politically incorrect. However, once you’ve caught on to Baron Cohen’s strategy — always hit ‘em with the crude, rude and lewd — the only thing shocking about “The Dictator” is how tedious it becomes. Six years ago, the uncouth, irreverent jokes in Baron Cohen’s “Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan” had the world gasping and snickering, but “The Dictator” demonstrates how quickly a cutting-edge style can turn deadly dull.

Baron Cohen has left behind the candid camera ambushes of “Borat” and “Bruno” for a more conventional storytelling form in this tale of Admiral General Omar Aladeen, the dim-witted, power-mad ruler of the fictional North African country of Wadiya. Unfortunately, Baron Cohen and director Larry Charles have left considerable room for improvisation, particularly whenever Aladeen and his cohort Nadal (Jason Mantzoukas) begin bantering. While Baron Cohen and Mantzoukas’ clueless, usually profanity-peppered chatter may have cracked everybody up on the set or in the editing suite, most of it is pointless and, even worse, humorless.

The same goes for Aladeen's romance with Zoe (Anna Faris, once again stuck in a movie that does her no favors), an Amherst graduate who runs a health food store, crusades for social justice and -- brace yourself for this wild idea -- doesn't shave her armpits. So Aladeen first assumes she's a man and then takes it for granted that she's a lesbian; wrong on both counts. "I pretty much haven't had a white boyfriend since high school," she proudly notes. "Yes, the darker races are less choosy," Aladeen responds.

They fall in love around the same time she teaches him how to masturbate. Oh yes, she does. In return, he treats her to hot gossip about what it's like to have Osama bin Laden in your guest house: "You go to the bathroom after Osama, you will realize the true meaning of terrorism," Aladeen cracks. Oh no, he shouldn't have.

There are a handful of semi-funny ideas floating around here, such as the thought that Megan Fox now has been reduced to sleeping with lonely world leaders to maintain her lifestyle, or a speech near the end in which Aladeen imagines what America would be like as a dictatorship. Even so, "The Dictator" runs out of comic fuel shockingly early on, which is doubly surprising when you note that without its prolonged end credits sequence the movie's running time would be barely 79 minutes.

As Martin Scorsese's "Hugo" demonstrated, Baron Cohen can do terrific work with a strong director and a solid script. Left to his own devices -- and in the overly charitable hands of Charles, who either would not or could not rein in the star's boundless self-adoration -- Baron Cohen looks like a one-trick pony that should have been put out to pasture years ago.

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