Has Sacha Baron Cohen finally exhausted the goodwill of audiences? When “The Ali G Show” made its debut on HBO in 2003 it was as if a meteor struck this planet from the comedic heavens above, alighting us all with the gift of laughter.
That was then, this is now. This week “The Dictator” was, quite frankly, smothered in box office competition by both “The Avengers” and “Battleship,” turning in a lackluster — but not entirely soul-destroying — third place performance in its debut. There could not possibly have been a better time to release such a movie. The Arab Spring is in full flower; dictators are universally reviled. Who among us doesn’t want to see a Quaddafi-ish autocratic ass-hat lampooned?
So — what went wrong? Putting things into proper perspective: bringing in $17.2 million in its first week is not the end of the world or Mr. Cohen’s career. Still, that number, while not fatal to a career trajectory, might just signal the end of Cohen’s pungent brand of reality-flavored satire. Aside from the disappointing, though again not fatal box office, the reviews were quite mixed (59% rating of top critics on Rotten Tomatoes).
What was most surprising, however, was the powerfully negative response from more established media resources, which, one would think, would be firmly Team Cohen. Isn’t Cohen the thinking person’s comedian? Foreign Policy’s Joshua E. Keating writes, in a post titled Is ‘The Dictator’ Racist: “Cohen clearly knows his politics (how many comedies include both extended masturbation jokes and references to Gazprom?), but it’s hard to get past the fact that most of the film’s comedy derives from a British actor playing a crude Arab stereotype.” And while, no, “The Dictator” is not racist, it is, at the very least, clichéd and even more than a little bit stale. And stale, in comedy, carries about it the stink of death. The film belongs in the same bargain bin as that seemingly endless stream of bad SNL skits turned into movies. Perhaps “The Dictator,” like the unburied and unsung “McGruber”, was best left to a five minute skit on the small screen.
Further, Sacha Baron Cohen did some of the more comedically prestigious rounds of the media gauntlet in advance of “The Dictator”’s release as … himself. Sacha being Sacha on the promotional tour is, quite frankly, pretty rare; it makes a statement. How better to garner media and blog buzz for a project than staging an elaborate satirical real time sketch. That has been, in the past, Sacha Baron Cohen’s modus operandi; he perfected the art of promoting his films. But in recent appearances on both Letterman and Howard Stern, two “smart” comedy shows, Cohen went on as himself and not in his gaudy General Aladeen get-up, signaling, perhaps, that the joke – to insiders, at least – no longer packs the same punch. You can’t really fake it to those in-the-know. As Chris Lee reported in The Daily Beast:
Out of respect for [Howard] Stern, who Baron Cohen says inspired him, the comedian spoke straightforwardly and un-ironically in his native British accent, absent the kinky weird beard associated with his Saddam Hussein–esque character, Admiral General Shabazz Aladeen, and spouting none of the faux despot’s characteristically sexist and racist gibberish. “I’ve never really done interviews as myself,” Cohen said. “This is like the third time in my life I’ve done an interview out of character.”
Is this a new beginning? “The Dictator” is also, stylistically if not thematically, an abrupt departure from Cohen’s comfort zone mixing reality with improv, a sort of Jackass-meets-Coltrane piece of satirical comedy that he appears to have invented. And while critics – including this one – found parts of “The Dictator” laugh out loud funny, the general consensus is that it is a thoroughly uneven movie. We are now jaded; the once brilliant comic invention has lost its charm, perhaps in the same way that M. Knight Shyamalan endings no longer fuck up our whole shit. We are all Shymalayan-ed out.
Finally, Sacha Baron Cohen’s next role will be in the Freddy Mercury biopic, which may mean ultimately that he is going the way of Jamie Foxx. The Jamie Foxx Path, which led the former stand-up comedian to an Oscar, provides a difficult route, an escape from the typecasting of comedy. Sacha Baron Cohen, an innovator, an independent voice, certainly deserves another chapter in his career. If there had been a Best Actor in a Comedy Oscar – as I have argued for in this blog – Cohen would have won it in 2007 for “Borat.” But it appears that the simpleton foreigner shtick has, abruptly, run its course. It was a good and lucrative run. That having been said, I cannot wait to see what he becomes in his next act.