During the spring television season, my wife and I became strangely fascinated by the Manhattan real-estate agent Fredrik Eklund, who is featured prominently in Million Dollar Listing: New York, one of Bravo’s many reality-TV forays into the lifestyles of the rich and totally ridiculous. Eklund is long-faced and loose-limbed, with a strong Swedish accent, a permanent tan, and an implausible biography: The son of a prominent Swedish economist and civil servant (“the Alan Greenspan of Sweden,” Eklund dubs his dad), he spent his 20s founding tech startups while moonlighting as a gay porn star (under the pseudonym “Tag Eriksson”), and now has crossed the Atlantic and conquered Manhattan real estate to the tune of millions of dollars in commission fees each year.
To watch him in action — breezing from one startling stateside encounter to the next, the alarming foreigner let loose among the baffled natives — is to encounter something at once exotic and strangely familiar. Midway through the season, the source of the familiarity finally came to me: In his mix of shamelessness, foreignness, and winking mischievousness, Eklund is the closest the real world comes to producing a Sacha Baron Cohen character.
Alas for Cohen himself, those characters have been so successful that they’ve put his own style of reality programming out of business: His face is too famous, his tactics too well-known, the ripest targets too savvy to be ambushed. As Ali G, the faux-gangsta youth broadcaster from Staines-Upon-Thames, he conned major politicos, genuine celebrities, and even United Nations secretaries general into sitting for his interviews. (“We want to say big-up yourself, Boutros-Boutros-Boutros-Boutros Ghali.”) By the time his screamingly gay Austrian fashionista Bruno earned the big-screen treatment, in 2009, he was reduced to tricking redneck hunters and gay-conversion therapists (along with, yes, Congressman Ron Paul) into taking his persona at face value. And now he’s been reduced further still, since his new film, The Dictator, is just a straightforward fish-out-of-water comedy with no documentary elements at all.
Well, tyrant-out-of-water comedy, at least. Cohen plays Admiral General Aladeen, the dictator of Wadiya, a North African autocracy located along the Red Sea somewhere between Egypt and Sudan. Part Qaddafi, part Ahmadinejad, Aladeen has a vast beard and a vaster ego: When he isn’t paying celebrities a fortune to fly in and sleep with him (Megan Fox makes a cameo appearance in what I hope is a more mercenary version of herself), he’s plotting to build a nuclear program capable of delivering energy and prosperity to his peo . . . okay, fine, capable of wiping Israel off the map. (In a speech to his nation, he tries to promise that the nukes will be used for peaceful purposes, only to dissolve into giggles halfway through.)
Faced with this clear and present danger, the Western powers threaten sanctions and airstrikes unless Aladeen agrees to address the United Nations and explain himself. On the trip to New York, though, his ambitious uncle Tamir (Ben Kingsley) executes a Ruritanian maneuver, kidnapping the dictator and replacing him with his double, a cretinous shepherd from the Wadiyan hinterland, who is induced to promise democratic elections to a relieved international community, and the rights to the Wadiyan oil fields to Tamir’s Russian, American, and Chinese business partners.
The real dictator, meanwhile, slips his uncle’s net and ends up wandering in New York City, where he finds shelter in a Brooklyn organic co-op run by Zoey (Anna Faris), a wide-eyed peacenik who assumes that Aladeen is a Wadiyan dissident. What follows will be predictable to fans of Ali G, Borat, and Bruno. The foreigner behaves outrageously, spewing forth a stream of racist, sexist, and anti-Semitic provocations: Zoey is a “lesbian hobbit,” blacks are “sub-Saharans,” a baby born unexpectedly in the store is greeted with “Bad news, it’s a girl — where’s the trash can?” And the Americans react with an extraordinary amount of tolerance and forbearance — which, in turn, only encourages his provocations further.
The difference, though, is that this time the Americans, too, are actors following a script. Cohen’s earlier films were often quease-inducing because of the lose-lose choice they offered the people caught up in them (too much rudeness made them look like creeps, but too much politeness or enthusiasm implicated them in his characters’ bigotry). But they also carried an anything-can-happen frisson that kept you watching, even against your better judgment. Whereas in The Dictator, you know that anything can’t happen, because the actors are all following a script. Zoey and her friends have to tolerate Aladeen, and then she eventually has to develop feelings for him, because that’s what the story says she has to do.
And while Cohen himself is still very funny, that story — the inevitable romance, the inevitable counter-coup against Amir — is deadly dull. You don’t watch a Sacha Baron Cohen film for the plot, and The Dictator has far too much of it: It ends up part caper movie, part political satire, and the capering is pointless and the satire less than biting. Cohen had a good run with this approach to comedy, but he needs to reinvent himself, and just taking his existing shock-the-bourgeoisie shtick into scripted films is not the reinvention that he needs.