Sacha Baron Cohen, finding his face too familiar now (even in disguise) for the hijinks of movies such as Borat and Bruno, assembles a ragtag narrative, pilfered from the headlines of international news. He plays “Admiral-General” Aladeen, the brutal dictator of a fictional Middle Eastern country, the Republic of Wadiya. He finds himself stranded in Manhattan after an imposed case of mistaken identity. Taken in by a feminist/organic gardener/co-op owner/insert activist stereotype here, the destitute refugee must attempt to acclimate himself to common life in a democratic country.
From the outset, much of the humor relies on sequences of shtick that outlast their wit. Most of the jokes could be found in the monologue of any late-night talk-show host. Beyond the guise of political satire, the movie is simply an attempt to gain immunity from its own offensiveness: “Anyone outside of America is technically an A-rab.” The few scenes that generate sustained laughter involve setups independent of the political gimmick. But unlike Chaplin’s The Great Dictator (to which the filmmakers are obviously trying to pay homage), Cohen lacks the ingenuity to be funny and make a statement at the same time.
At best, he manages to sanitize some of the tastelessness: racial intolerance, funeral desecration, 9/11. However, other scenes reach beyond stupidity to the point of verbal assault, such as those involving rape and pedophilia. Cohen is eager to make these jokes because he has no real interest in the atrocities he is mocking. They are merely fodder. He thereby alleviates himself of responsibility for how people might be affected by them — that is, any affect other than laughter. The audience members, in essence, become subjects to a kind of comedic dictatorship: laugh or shut up. As Cohen’s “supreme leader” frequently comments when opinions are expressed, “Who cares?”