By Glenn Kenny and Glenn Whipp
Special to MSN Movies
Comic provocateur Sacha Baron Cohen returns to theaters this week with "The Dictator," which, judging from the latest trailer, looks to blend the poke-in-the-eye performance art of "Borat" and "Bruno" with more traditional, scripted comedy. We know it will be naughty. But will it be niiiiiiice? MSN Movies critics Glenn Kenny and Glenn Whipp apply their cultural learnings to the subject in the latest installment of Between Two Glenns.
Glenn Whipp: When we last saw Sacha Baron Cohen, he was walking the Academy Awards' red carpet in character as Gen. Aladeen, wearing a fake beard and white military uniform while precariously carrying an urn containing the "ashes" of his "dear friend and doubles tennis partner" Kim Jong Il. It was the culmination of a weeklong media stunt designed to promote Cohen's upcoming movie, "The Dictator." And I have to say, Glenn, that as a fan, I took no pleasure in the obvious desperation behind all the manufactured controversy leading up to the event. SACHA BARON COHEN BANNED FROM THE OSCARS! NO ... NOT BANNED! HE'S COMING! MAYBE? (Fingers crossed!) And, in between, he releases that minute-and-a-half, pun-heavy video where Cohen/Aladeen berates the "Motion Pictures of Arts and Zionists" and bemoans the lack of Oscar recognition for his country's classic movies "When Harry Kidnapped Sally," "You've Got Mailbomb" and "Planet of the Rapes."
Those crimes against wordplay might have been forgiven had Cohen done
something interesting while dressed in character at the Oscars. Instead, he
dumped the contents of the aforementioned urn on the most obvious, innocuous
possible target: unctuous babbler Ryan Seacrest. I suppose, if you're
being generous, you could call Cohen's stunt a pointed comment on the banality
of the Oscar preshow peacock parade. (I did like his parting comment to the
crestfallen Seacrest: "It's OK for you. Now, if somebody asks you what you are
wearing, you will say, 'Kim Jong Il.'") But if that was the case and you're
taking the time to get all dressed up, why not aim higher and wait for ... oh
... Gwyneth Paltrow (or Brad Pitt or George Clooney) to come within
ash-tipping distance. Hell, I'd have settled for Bradley Cooper. Instead, I was again
left with the impression that while Cohen's comedy can be inspired, it's rarely
as dangerous as he'd have you believe. He's too content to pick off the
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Glenn Kenny: Well, Glenn, you've astutely identified some of the pitfalls of the kind of "event" assault humor that made Sacha Baron Cohen's increasingly-less-edgy reputation. I'm reminded of the Looney Tune cartoon "Show Biz Bugs," in which a vaudevillian Daffy Duck finally earns the applause he craves by committing suicide onstage. As the audience's ovation demands an encore, the spirit of now-dead Daffy complains about the problem with his boffo act: "I can only do it once."
Baron Cohen's in a bit of a quandary here. When he brought "Da Ali G Show" to the United States back in 2003, he was enough of an unknown quantity that the conceptual stunt animating it (Baron Cohen portraying a lame B-boy passing himself off as a TV journalist and roping in actual credulous public figures to answer his revealingly ludicrous queries) worked like a charm. Same for "Borat," which is still, among other things, getting pushback from the affronted cultural apparatchiks of Kazakhstan. So, in a sense, Baron Cohen's got a leg up on Daffy, as he's done the trick twice, three times if the first iteration of Ali G across the pond counts. This is not nothing.
But while the "Dictator" stunt at the Oscars was, at a certain level, an enormous washout, what if in a sense it was actually more clever than we're giving it credit for? What if the joke is, in itself, the "manufactured controversy" borne of the "obvious desperation" you cite? That's a reach, perhaps, but on the other hand, I can't imagine that a media player as savvy as Baron Cohen cannot have taken the diminishing returns of his primary shtick into account in concocting his "Dictator" character. This at least makes me curious to see what the movie itself is up to. As for your suggestion that Baron Cohen's "Dictator" character reach for something other than low-hanging fruit, well, there too we find a conundrum which the performer would be hard-pressed to untangle successfully; had the overtly in-character performer gone after Pitt or Clooney or Paltrow, all that would likely have resulted would have been a demonstration of what "good sports" they are.
Glenn Whipp: You're probably right about Clooney and Pitt, Glenn. What about Jennifer Lopez? Certainly an ash-covered J.Lo would have worked well on many levels, particularly if paired with an off-the-shoulder, formfitting sackcloth gown. Think of it: A fashion and career statement. The Dictator helps J.Lo apologize for every movie she's made since "Out of Sight." Thanks, Dictator!
But I realize Baron Cohen makes his living in comedy, not career management. And, if I criticize him, it's because I love or at least respect the intelligence behind the best of his humor and for the way it sometimes makes me laugh myself silly. That's why the first trailer for "The Dictator" left me cold. The accent was "funny." The jokes? Not so much. The bit with the Dictator shooting his competitors in a track race has been done before in a dozen different ways, and making fun of the Kardashians is, again, simply too easy. (I'll leave it to more brilliant minds to explain the math behind the Megan Fox > Kim Kardashian equation. I must have skipped school that day.)
Maybe because that first trailer was so underwhelming (or perhaps it was all part of a slow-reveal campaign), a second "Dictator" spot was assembled. What had initially seemed a 90-minute cartoon now resembles "Coming to America" (the 50 percent funnier version!). It at least hints at an ambition that seemed as absent from that initial trailer as it did from Baron Cohen's last movie, "Bruno," a flat exercise in pandering that felt as hollow as the celebrity culture it aimed to skewer. It certainly points to the direction that holds the most promise for its creator, one that abandons sketch humor in favor of character-based comedy.
Glenn Kenny: Well, you got me dead to rights on "Bruno": I
had very nearly forgotten that it even existed! And yes, you're dead on about
the potential humor that might have been yielded via J.Lo targeting. I think
we're a little too much in concordance, here, finally: both agreed that Baron
Cohen is an undeniably gifted performer and audacious comic creator who's now at
a career crossroads, who can no longer depend on the tropes and stunts that gave
him his first boosts. I'm looking forward to seeing more of his performing gifts
at work. I thought he was aces with both the acting and the singing in Tim Burton's underappreciated film
version of Sondheim's "Sweeney Todd," and I thought his work in Scorsese's
"Hugo" was nicely understated. That said understated work drew most of the
harshest critical brickbats that film received, I may infer that the "who the
hell does he think he is" meme was starting to gain momentum.
Bing: Watch the trailer for "The Dictator"
The missed opportunity of the Oscar stunt certainly got it chugging, and in this case it was (relatively) deserved. And you've convinced me to give up my rather half-hearted "it was so lame that it was brilliant on account of being deliberately lame, it HAD to be" theory. Nope, 'twas in fact a fizzled firework, and I hope he doesn't try it again. What I DO hope is that "The Dictator" works as I think it might, that is, as a raucous fictional satire/gross-out comedy, with a plot and everything.
But I further hope, 20 or 30 years down the line, that an aged Baron Cohen creates a new character to wreak havoc on the pieties and prejudices of real people he confronts. By that time his appearance will have changed to the extent that a disguise he adopts won't automatically register as "Sacha Baron Cohen with weird facial hair" or something. Of course such a scheme now runs the risk of seeming derivative of that new Betty White geriatric variation on "Punk'd." Then again, a really old dude running about at various circumscribed situations, American or not, and drawing satirical points might be bracing in a better-than-Andy Rooney way.
Glenn Whipp: That vision of the future makes me want to get out my chair and go run a mile or something just to guarantee that I'll be around to witness it. And I also hope to see Baron Cohen play Freddie Mercury in that biopic that may (or may not) begin filming this year. It's a huge risk, yes, but given how he aced singing and acting in "Sweeney Todd" (and, yes, his character work in "Hugo" was pretty special, too) it's one that holds much promise. But he'd better get going while he can still pull off the spandex.
Glenn Kenny is a writer living in Brooklyn. He was the chief film critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various publications and websites, and blogs at http://somecamerunning.typepad.com.
Glenn Whipp writes about film for the Los Angeles Times, Variety, The Associated Press and, of course, MSN Movies.
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