Burning flesh, a severed head, a rain of feces — there's no horror movie like a Sacha Baron Cohen horror movie. (The naked wrestling match in Borat is to hotel rooms what The Blair Witch Project is to basements and Psycho is to showers.) No other screen presence of recent vintage matches Cohen's understanding that shame, terror and comedy all work the same side of the gut. Certain freaky-scary things cause the helpless laughter, which comes with the gratitude that we aren't watching ourselves. (On the bent plane of the Cohen universe, a place recognizable to any 13-year-old boy, those things include body hair, semen and the vagina — especially the vagina.)
Tickling an uneasy zeitgeist's quivering underbelly is a core function of comedy, and Cohen's latest farce, The Dictator, does that — but only just. Varying his angle of attack (if not his targets) by a few degrees, Cohen has made Admiral General Aladeen — the despot who rules fictional Middle Eastern oil power Wadiya — another oaf turned loose in America, where he spends about 75 minutes revealing our everyday hypocrisies, cultural and political. This time, though, everyone is in on the script, and the central character is supposed to take some of the pounding. Every target here is obvious, though, and that obviousness becomes its own not very satisfying joke. It's not the misfire endured by anyone who saw Brüno, but — this long after Borat — the strain of coaxing shocked guffaws out of an already-primed audience is showing.
Teamed again with Borat and Brüno director Larry Charles, Cohen (co-writing with Alec Berg, David Mandel and Jeff Schaffer —three burghers in the Charles-Seinfeld-David axis of schlemiel) cranks Islamophobia, anti-Semitism and a general dread of Western overreach through the same meat grinder. Under the pratfall thuds and tabla tattoos of the purposely generic Middle Eastern music, there's not a lot to hear — the best lines are throwaways, the satisfactions mostly tonal and visual. But Cohen is an exuberant performer whose motion and voice mean more than what he's yelling or yelping from scene to scene. (Anna Faris works hard as Cohen's love interest, in on the joke that a movie about a fascist leader shouldn't have a love interest and also in on that joke being impossibly but good-naturedly dumb.)
Sophistication isn't the point, though. By design, this is a crude IED, not a nuke — closer to the Farrelly brothers than to Chaplin. Still, there's something Groucho in Cohen's swarthy joie de stooge, an echo here of that funniest of xenophobe-baiting funnies, Duck Soup.
There's a fine, knowing moment when someone confides to Aladeen's right-hand man that every celebrity — Harvey Keitel, Edward Norton, maybe even George Clooney — is up for a little self-debasement if the price is right. The right-hand man is played by Ben Kingsley, whose choices have amply demonstrated that very principle. It's just a trace of meta, but it's a satisfyingly radioactive one, the kind of gag that makes you hope there's a Duck Soup lurking in Cohen, maybe apart from his familiar collaborators.