“The Dictator,” the latest from Sacha Baron Cohen, begins with a very funny sight gag – a photo of Kim Jong-Il, proclaiming the film is dedicated in his loving memory.

But the gags are all over the map after that, a hodgepodge of humor that can’t decide whether it wants to be mean-spirited satire or play it safe for a mass audience.

The result is Cohen’s weakest film to date.

Cohen plays Aladeen, the vicious ruler of the oil-rich African nation of Waadeya. When Aladeen threatens to have nuclear weapons that he plans to use to gain more power, he is summoned to New York City to address the United Nations.

Before he can make that appearance, Aladeen is kidnapped and replaced with a double, leaving the ruler to fend for himself in a strange land. With the aid of an organic store owner named Zoey, Aladeen sets out to regain his rightful place as leader of Waadeya, but soon begins to realize he may not be such a bad guy after all.

Part of the reason Cohen’s previous two films, “Borat” and “Bruno” (to a lesser extent), worked was because the comedian wasn’t afraid to do anything for a laugh. There are moments in “The Dictator” where that dare-to-offend humor comes out, and many of those gags are really funny. A speech at the end where Aladeen basically skewers everything wrong with the current American political system is actually brilliant satire.

But “The Dictator” doesn’t have enough of these moments. Instead, it has more humor that may be R-rated but lacks the same comedic touch.

This is a film that lacks focus, even at a swift 83 minutes. It feels as if Cohen (who co-wrote with three other writers) and director Larry Charles had a brainstorming session and couldn’t decide what to cut, so they threw it all in the film.

It’s also a shame that “The Dictator” wastes Anna Faris, who is a funny actress but is given a rather pedestrian role as the love interest.

There were so many possibilities with “The Dictator” to be a razor-sharp satire, but it never quite materializes. Instead, it’s just a dull-witted comedy that will likely be forgotten by the time we get to Memorial Day.

Also in theaters

Another of the high-profile summer releases this week is “Dark Shadows” (C), the latest collaboration between director Tim Burton and actor Johnny Depp. It’s a film that despite Depp’s best efforts proves to be somewhat disappointing.

Based on a TV series that ran from 1966-71, “Dark Shadows” tells the story of Barnabas Collins (Depp) – an 18th century aristocrat who is turned into a vampire and buried alive by a scorned witch named Angelique (Eva Green).

Barnabas is freed two centuries later, emerging in 1972 to discover that his once profitable business has fallen on hard times. Barnabas is determined to restore his family’s good name, so he sets out to help his distant descendants (which include Michelle Pfeiffer as the current head of the Collins household and Chloe Grace Moretz as her mysterious daughter).

The TV series was a little before my time, so I can’t really compare this film to that show. I can compare it to previous collaborations between Depp and Burton, however, and I found “Dark Shadows” to be quite disappointing in that respect.

Depp can do the fish out of water character in his sleep, so it’s no real surprise that he is the strongest asset in “Dark Shadows.” Depp really sinks his teeth into the role, giving a comically dark performance that is way more interesting than the movie he’s been placed in.

One problem is the fact that Depp doesn’t really have anyone else to play off of. It’s nice to see Pfeiffer back on screen, but she isn’t given much to work with. Green’s character should have been juicer, but it lacks any spark. Moretz fairs best, but even her character fades in the final act.

The bigger problem is Burton, who seems to be on autopilot as a director. Burton approaches “Dark Shadows” in the same quirky manner he has approached most of his projects, but this is a case where familiarity isn’t a good thing – it just feels second rate. It’s as if we’re watching someone else try to mimic a Burton film, and the result pales in comparison to his better work.

“Dark Shadows” is rated PG-13 for comic horror violence, sexual content, some drug use, language and smoking, and is now playing at the Greenwood Mall 10 and Highland Cinemas in Glasgow.

— To get sportswriter/movie reviewer Micheal Compton’s up-to-the minute thoughts on all things movies, visit his blog at mcompton.wordpress.com or his Twitter page at twitter.com/mcompton428. You can also email him at mcompton@bgdailynews.com.

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