“In loving memory of Kim Jong-Il,” reads an epigram at the beginning of “The Dictator,” Sacha Baron Cohen’s latest send-up of political manners and American exceptionalism.
It’s true that the character Cohen plays, an aggressively bearded tyrant named Admiral General Aladeen, who has ruled the North African country of Wadiya since he was 7, embodies all of the absurdities of despotic power, including its preening vanity and chronic insecurity.
As portrayed by Cohen, the egotistical, belligerent Aladeen bumbles through everything — from sexual encounters with paid starlets to the executions he orders for the most innocuous perceived slight — like Uday, Qusay, Larry, Moe and Curly combined. (He describes himself as the last in a long line of now-fallen dictators: “Kim, Gaddafi, Saddam, Cheney.”)
But once Aladeen comes to America — to speak at the United Nations about his nuclear arms buildup — Cohen’s target area widens from reactionary abuses of power overseas to political correctness and unearned moral arrogance on these shores.
When Aladeen is supposedly assassinated and his body double steps in, he finds himself beardless and abroad in 21st-century New York, where he meets a vegan-feminist collective grocer named Zoey (Anna Faris); their budding friendship invites nonstop jokes about lesbianism, underarm hair and fundamental cultural and political misunderstandings. “The police here are so fascist!” Zoey cries after Aladeen is temporarily taken into custody. “Yeah, and not in a good way!” Aladeen retorts.
That’s one of the few throwaway lines that is genuinely amusing in “The Dictator,” which never achieves the stinging parodic heights of Cohen’s “Borat” movie, but manages a better batting average than his most recent misfire, “Bruno.”
Cohen has thankfully dispensed with ambushing real-life people for squirm-inducing interviews. But an early stunt involving a Wii game based on the 1972 Munich Olympics falls flatter than a stale matzo, a running gag about Hollywood stars selling sexual favors quickly loses steam and it can be stipulated that rape jokes simply aren’t funny.
Then again, at a lean 83 minutes, it will be worth the ride for Cohen fans just to hear choice Arabic renditions of “Everybody Hurts” and “Let’s Get It On,” and for a pointed third-act speech questioning a democracy ruled by its wealthiest 1 percent (hint: rhymes with “Mamerica”).
Even amid the hit-and-miss broadsides and laugh-free longueurs that make up most of “The Dictator,” Cohen’s acute hypocrisy-detector keeps on ticking, if barely.
R. At area theaters. Contains strong crude and sexual content, brief male nudity, profanity and some violent images. 83 minutes.