- - Thursday, May 24, 2012

Sacha Baron Cohen — aka Borat, aka Bruno, aka the Dictator — might just be over and done with. His shtick is wearing thin, and he’s starting to let his politics overpower his laughs.

Nowhere is that more apparent than at the climax of his latest film, “The Dictator.” For much of the picture, Mr. Cohen picks targets across the political spectrum: In character as Admiral General Aladeen, brutal dictator of Wadiya, he can’t help but giggle as he claims to be developing nuclear weapons for peaceful purposes; a politically correct Brooklyn food co-op is mercilessly mocked; international businessmen are debased, immoral pigs; and Americans preoccupied with terrorism are played for laughs.

The targets are almost too easy, and the humor a bit too broad, but at least there are a few chuckles — until Mr. Cohen’s jarring third-act political monologue brings things to a screeching halt (and it isMr. Cohen‘s, because it sure ain’t Adm. Gen. Aladeen‘s). In it, he essentially turns to the camera and addresses the audience, asking sarcastically why people would prefer democracy over a dictatorship anyway:

Why are you guys so anti-dictator?

Imagine if America was a dictatorship. You could let 1 percent of the people have all the nation’s wealth. You could help your rich friends get richer by cutting their taxes and bailing them out when they gamble and lose. You could ignore the needs of the poor for health care and education. Your media would appear free, but would secretly be controlled by one person and his family. You could wiretap phones. You could torture foreign prisoners. You could have rigged elections. You could lie about why you go to war. You could fill your prisons with one particular racial group, and no one would complain. You could use the media to scare the people into supporting policies that are against their interests.

You see? Dictatorships are indistinguishable from the sordid reality of American “democracy.” So clever. So subtle. We should run this joke by the Syrians slaughtered by the Assads. I hear laughter is the best medicine for dictatorial genocide.

The speech isn’t unfunny because it’s liberal. The speech is unfunny because it’s tacked on. It felt like Mr. Cohen and director Larry Charles got tired of trying to work political humor into the mix organically — as they did in “Borat” and “Bruno” — and said, “Well, why don’t we just tell people what we think?”

Too bad there was nobody around to give them the answer: In exchange for their political soapbox, they sacrifice everything — unity of character, tone and satiric perspective, audience suspension of disbelief and, for the awkward joke’s uncomfortable duration, genuine laughter.

In place of the missing laughter, Mr. Cohen’s intrusive, character-breaking editorial elicits, at best, scattered “clapter,” the dutiful, mirthless applause that ax-grinding political comics wrest from the duly conditioned. Audiences for “The Daily Show,” the “Saturday Night Live” Weekend Update and “Real Time With Bill Maher” are apt to erupt in gales of clapter. “Oh, yes, Republicans are thoughtless pigs — clap, clap, clap. Rush Limbaugh, what a jerk — clap, clap, clap. It’s funny because I agree with it!”

Say what you will about Mr. Cohen’s previous efforts: At least they provoked plenty of laughs. If not always for the reasons the filmmakers intended.

Take “Borat.” The film has its fun with Middle American (and poor Kazakh) rubes, along with some marks among the liberal left and denizens of the Big Apple. The culturally clueless Borat’s unexpected silliness and awkward mannerisms led to laughs for all.

But as Christopher Hitchens noted in Slate, one can’t help but come away thinking better of the rubes than the elites. “Americans are almost pedantic in their hospitality and politesse,” the now-deceased British expat wrote. “The only people who are flat-out rude and patronizing to our curious foreigner are the stone-faced liberal Amazons of the Veteran Feminists of America.” The middle classes bore the brunt of Mr. Cohen’s humor, but the joke wasn’t necessarily on them.

“The Dictator” has bombed with audiences. At a reported cost of up to $100 million after reshoots, the film grossed only $17 million in its opening weekend and finished an anemic third place in the box-office race.

Things looked so bright for the provocateur in 2006 when “Borat” — produced for a mere $18 million — grossed $26 million in its opening weekend and gained word-of-mouth momentum on its way to a total gross of more than $128 million.

Mr. Cohen is clearly a talented actor, and his smaller roles in bigger pictures have been quite impressive — from the crippled conductor in last year’s “Hugo” to the ostentatious barber opposite Johnny Depp in “Sweeney Todd” to the French race car driver in “Talladega Nights,” Mr. Cohen has stolen the show while disappearing beautifully into his roles.

Rather than mugging for the camera in staged publicity stunts, showing up for interviews and news conferences in character, and preaching liberal platitudes, perhaps Mr. Cohen should focus on honing his craft and making audiences laugh. Laughter beats clapter any day of the week.

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