Are you ready for some leftover, room temperature Sacha Baron Cohen? Too bad if you're not.
You've already seen him popping up at various TV and media events wearing the costume, spilling ash on Ryan Seacrest, shouting "DEATH TO THE WEST!" But the product he's promoting isn't that "gotcha" sort of thing anymore, the fake documentary where people are caught being awful to the Cohen character. He's not stunting or pranking or trying to fool anybody into thinking he's an idiotic racist from Kazakhstan or an obnoxious, entitled, inappropriate gay guy. This is, instead, what you're not expecting: a standard-issue scripted comedy with made-up characters and actors and (kind of) a story. A murderous Middle Eastern dictator (Cohen) -- who's really sweet at heart and just needs some love, we're told, even though he orders random executions and has a fondness for raping teenage boys -- winds up beardless in New York City, adrift and alone, thanks to a series of events involving body doubles, treacherous underlings and oil company machinations. He meets a parody of a hairy-armpit lefty (Anna Faris) and together they misunderstand each other into love. He teachers her how to crack the whip at the organic food co-op she runs and she teaches him how to give himself pleasure "down there," set to Kelly Clarkson's "A Moment Like This" and a montage of leaping dolphins, just like the way it happens in real life.
It's consistently, ridiculously, dumbly funny (think chuckling instead of shocked gut-laughs), but it's also insulated and inward focused, more concerned with its fictional characters' feelings than with the kind of pushy, daring culture-jamming Cohen's pulled off before. If Borat was a world set ablaze and Bruno a controlled, semi-dangerous brush fire, this is making smores. Audiences in need of more should just watch Four Lions instead.
And that's fine. You don't pull it off every time. The most innovative, on-point talents, even after they've carved and paved their own path, will occasionally stumble. And maybe "stumble" isn't the right word. Because if you think about Sacha Baron Cohen's media presence to this point, if you consider that this guy could just coast on his earlier success alone and spend the rest of his days character-acting his way through Martin Scorcese films, then you'll be less likely to dismiss this strange, sketchy effort. But it is a sketch, an 80-minute-long SNL-style sketch with a repellent recurring character turned loveable with the familiarity of repetition.
Now, compared to the best thing Rob Schneider ever stepped into, that's still an unqualified achievement, but you expect more from Cohen because he primed you to expect more. That's why, in the final five minutes of the movie when his dictator lays down a biting, coherent assessment of everything currently troubling the United States, when the stealth, scalding critique finally hits its target, you almost wish it wouldn't. It just reminds you of what you're pretending not to miss.