Sacha Baron Cohen is a great comic talent and a good actor with a lot of potential, so it's encouraging to see him trying to move beyond the "ambush-interviews-as-a-wacky-character" genre that initially made him a sensation. Let's just hope that the next "something new" he tries sticks better than "The Dictator" does.
The main problem at work is that while Cohen has wisely abandoned the "interview real people" routine, he's really only made a lateral progression - once again inhabiting a broad, purposefully-offensive cartoon caricature like Borat, Bruno and Ali-G but this time dropping said caricature into the leading-man spot of a formula fish-out-of-water comedy.
The persona in question is Admiral General Aladeen, dictator-for-life of the fictional North African Republic of Wadiya. He's basically a pastiche of every "crazy leader" Western audiences have become recently familiar with - a little Saddam, a little Kim-Jong Il, a little Ghadaffi, a little Ahmadinejad, etc; - plus a smattering of broader riffs on Middle Eastern cultural-stereotypes (he's a sexist, an anti-semite, you get the idea.) This is actually the funniest stuff in the movie - it's a riot watching Aladeen go about his psycho-supervillain routine; and you start to get the sense that a "Spinal Tap" style mocumentary JUST on the running of Wadiya might be funnier than the rest of the movie.
Along with brutalizing his people while spending absurd amounts of national wealth on his personal fetishes and fixations, Aladeen has also begun seeking nuclear weapons which has pushed him to the brink of international military intervention; which he has been given one last chance to avert by addressing the United Nations in New York. While there, he is betrayed by his uncle (Ben Kingsley) and left for dead - the betrayers planning to replace him with a double and initiate a "transfer to democracy" which will actually involve Wadiya and it's oil fields being taken over by a cabal of corporate power-players. There's a lot of potential for smart pitch-black satire in this premise; the idea of a corporate-"democracy" being equal to or even worse than a murderous dictatorship, but other than a well-intentioned but leaden speech at the very end it doesn't go anywhere. Instead, we follow the (not dead, as it turns out) Aladeen through a bad guy version of "Coming to America," as he schemes to get himself back into power while hiding in the guise of a Wadiyan refugee and falling for Anna Farris as the boss of a hippie Brooklyn food co-op.
A lot of this is pretty funny; I liked an extended bit where Aladeen visits a restaurant catering to Wadiyan refugees, and you can see a better movie struggling to escape in a subplot where The Dictator turns Farris' struggling food store around by applying his governing "expertise" to small-business. But it just can't rise above the level of barely-connected comedy sketches that can't even bother to maintain some consistency of character: Sometimes Aladeen is a wily schemer, then he's an idiot manchild, then he's a derranged butcher (a bizzare laugh-free dialogue exchange is dedicated to him having raped the members of Menudo.) That kind of "whatever's funniest right now" approach worked in "Borat" and the rest, where the whole point was that the interviewees were only meeting him for that bite-sized moment and the audience is in on the gag; but when it's a full-fiction movie and Aladeen is playing off other made-up comedy players it's just tiresome and disjointed.
It was probably innevitable that Cohen was going to stumble in a "transitional" movie in between his original schtick and whatever he grows into, but "The Dictator" is still pretty disapointing. Granted, I laughed hard and I laughed often - but then I forgot that I'd laughed at all.