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May 30, 2017

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Cohen's 'Dictator' least-focused yet

For a long time, it's hard to tell what Baron Cohen's point is in spoofing this type of despot: that torture and rape are bad? Could it really be that simple? A climactic speech Aladeen gives toward the end highlighting the benefits of a dictatorship hits close to home, but it's a long slog through hitor-miss gross-out gags to get there.

Baron Cohen is once again working with Larry Charles, who directed "Borat" and "Bruno," but the results are more scattershot than

ever. An early bit works in which Aladeen plays a personalized Wii game that allows him to kill Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics (anti-Semitism has long been a main target of Baron Cohen, who's an observant Jew). A helicopter ride over Manhattan that Aladeen takes with his former nuclear weapons expert (Jason Mantzoukas) creates some cultural misunderstandings that freak out the pasty tourists sitting across from them — that's good for some uncomfortable laughs.

But more often, "The Dictator" relies on crass sexual jokes and easy fish-out-of-water hijinks. At times, it even plays like Eddie Murphy's "Coming to America," which was amiable enough but didn't exactly represent cutting-edge comedy. About two-thirds of the way in, Kathryn Hahn shows up out of nowhere, with no introduction, for the film's most graphic sight gag. Surely, there must have been more from this reliable comic actress, and her brief inclusion feels like the product of an awkward edit.

As always, Baron Cohen fully commits to this character and even manages to find some glimmers of tenderness beneath the cold exterior. Like Kim Jong Il (to whom "The Dictator" is dedicated), who was at the center of the brilliant puppet musical

"Team America: World Police," Aladeen is just plain lonely. But playing this type of out-there satirical figure has really run its course.

Clearly, Baron Cohen is a smart, gifted and versatile actor; it's time for him to stretch his abilities and dictate to himself a new kind of challenge.

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