- - Friday, May 11, 2012

Finally, a movie for people who think the best way to make fun of Osama bin Laden is with poop jokes. Granted, that’s not all “The Dictator” has to offer: There are also jokes about torture, terror, racism and Brooklyn enviro-hipsters, as well as just about every possible sexual and scatological function imaginable — and perhaps a few that aren’t.

There’s something for everyone to laugh at in Sacha Baron Cohen’s new film, or at least something to be offended by. As often as not, the movie doesn’t seem to grasp the difference. Not chuckling at jokes about beheading? Don’t worry, before long you’ll have the opportunity to laugh at full-frontal male nudity. And if that doesn’t tickle your funny bone, there’s always a series of comic riffs on female armpit hair, some silly wordplay, and a smattering of pop-culture references. You’ll laugh. You’ll cry. You’ll cringe.

“The Dictator” takes a throw-feces-against-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks approach to comedy. Some of it works. Some of it, however, kind of stinks.

And none of it lives up to the chaotic genius of Mr. Cohen’s first film, the reality-bending “Borat.” Like that film, “The Dictator” is a fish-out-of-water comedy: Mr. Cohen plays Admiral General Aladeen, the murderous, oblivious, impressively bearded supreme leader of the fake Middle Eastern nation of Wadiya.

But when an underling (Ben Kingsley) hatches a plot to oust Aladeen and replace him with an easily manipulated double during a trip to the U.N. in New York, Aladeen finds himself stuck in the Big Apple with no money, no power and no beard.

Unlike “Borat” and its lesser follow-up, “Bruno,” however, “The Dictator” is all conventionally staged and scripted. “Borat” had more than its share of obscenity, but its power came from the way it injected its vulgarity into real-life situations with unsuspecting real-life targets. Watching Mr. Cohen’s marks squirm in disbelief as he excavated new depths of offensiveness was at least half the fun.

Without the frisson of reality, “The Dictator” relies far more on calculated obscenity and offense. Given Mr. Cohen’s genuine talent for creatively funny filth, that’s sometimes enough. But it frequently comes across as strained.

In place of reality-based shockers, Mr. Cohen and his frequent collaborator, director Larry Charles, have substituted political satire. As always, Mr. Cohen is an equal opportunity offender: Aladeen falls in love with a young feminist who runs a Brooklyn hippie co-op (Anna Faris) when he finally realizes that she is as much an authoritarian tyrant as he is; former Vice President Dick Cheney is included on a list of great former dictators.

But many of the political gags seem designed merely to bully the audience into anxious discomfort. The same goes for the constant racial joking, which seems content to merely namecheck various stereotypes rather than undermine them.

It’s so uneven that it’s almost hard to decide whether the movie is subversive, obvious, or just sloppy and haphazard.

No matter what, “The Dictator” is a step down for Mr. Cohen. Yes, it’s intermittently funny, but unlike the transgressive offenses of “Borat,” it’s hardly revolutionary.

★★ ½

TITLE: “The Dictator”

CREDITS: Directed by Larry Charles, written by Sacha Baron Cohen, Alec Berg, David Mandel, and Jeff Schaffer

RATING: R for extreme sexual humor and scatological gags

RUNNING TIME: 83 minutes

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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