The Prankster: Sacha Baron Cohen
Love him or loathe him (apparently some people do), Sacha Baron Cohen is the master of selfless promotion. What other movie star can hype his movies without submitting to the inquisitions of the media?
It’s a neat trick. Stanley Kubrick managed it (though I was reliably informed he was planning to do press for Eyes Wide Shut), and you can count Michael Jackson’s interviews on the fingers of one sequin-gloved hand, but who else? Tom Cruise has certainly kept his interviews to a minimum but then when he does show up on Oprah’s couch there’s no mystery there.
Baron Cohen on the other hand has perfected the art of hiding in plain sight. He does press conferences, talk shows, interviews - gets bags of free publicity - but without ever putting himself in the firing line; simply by insisting that it’s all done in character. In this way he makes journalists winking collaborators, supporting players in his own brand of performance art: the interview as situationist comedy improv.
No hack is going to get the better of him in that format. As Ali G he rang rings around everybody, even the most seasoned mouthpieces. Apparently being on the other end of the microphone doesn’t faze him at all. He still manages to find ways to control the conversation. Promoting his latest film in the States he held one host at gunpoint and on another he produced Roger Ebert’s two thumbs up from his pocket. To guarantee the endorsement of Martin Scorsese, he tortured him with electric shocks live on air. The Dictator is right – he’s got everyone speaking from his script.
Will the public follow suit?
This is an important movie for Baron Cohen. After the breakout smash that was Borat he was able to command a whopping $42 million deal for Bruno – but Universal must have been disappointed it made just half as much as the 2006 film ($138 million worldwide). With three years between projects (of course he’s done bits and pieces in stuff like Sweeney Todd and Hugo too) Baron Cohen can’t afford a flop.
It seems fair to assume that he’s too familiar a face now to get away with punking innocent (and not so innocent) bystanders in the Borat/Bruno tradition - though going unrecognized is a key plot point in the new movie. Unlike his predecessors Baron Cohen’s newest alter ego, Admiral General Aladeen, the dictator of the North African Republic of Wadiya has to operate from a script and in the company of supporting actors.
The results are uneven, vulgar, wildly funny in parts, flat and forced in others, and Paramount seems nervous about how the film will be received. That’s hardly surprising. It’s not often a corporation puts out a product making light of torture, terrorism, racism, sexism, and any other –ism you can think of. There has been no shortage of comedies testing taboos over the last twenty years, but few have pressed so many hot political buttons at the same time.
Some Muslims will surely take offence. But they won’t be alone. America itself is the but (or the butt?) of the film’s finest moment, a climactic speech worthy of Chaplin’s The Great Dictator. The UN gets skewed, and so does the world’s most populous country, China. Jokes about 9/11, the Munich Olympics, the London Underground attacks, pedophilia, rape and a running gag about a severed (black man’s) head will go too far for many; vegans, women, the disabled and children are all on the receiving end of Aladeen’s invective.
A birth scene includes tasteless sex jokes, a parody of Hollywood romantic conventions, a lost mobile phone, a fetus-eye-view shot worthy of Dario Argento, and a throwaway rape gag. If we laugh with Baron Cohen at such grossly offensive material, is it because deep down we share Aladeen’s unreconstructed prejudices? Or is it just that we have a sense of humour?
For all its shock tactics and surface crudity, The Dictator also operates on a more sophisticated level. Take the scene in which Aladeen tries to pass as a Chinese American by pronouncing his “R”s as “L”s and pressing his fingers to his eyes to affect a squint. His associate insists he can’t get away with such blatant ethnic stereotyping and bad acting. The scene puts a twist on a crude schoolyard gag by suggesting that Aladeen fancies himself a great actor – apparently he starred in several vanity movies back in Wadiya. But underneath that there’s another, covert, self-reflexive gag, about the propriety of an Anglo-Jewish actor caricaturing a North African Muslim.
It’s that layer of self-awareness – coupled with his willingness to go for broke - that puts Sacha Baron Cohen in a league of his own. I think he’ll make better films than this in the future – if they let him – but already he’s proved himself the boldest, bravest, most subversive comic talent of our time.