His formula is simple: 1) Create a character. 2) Imbue him with social and cultural ignorance and a host of stereotypes and/or insensitive world views. 3) Commit to him on and off the screen. 4) Use character to push boundaries of political correctness and obscenity. 5) Do not stop repeating No. 4. Ever.
The success of the formula to date has led to comic gold for Sacha Baron Cohen in his three biggest endeavors: “Da Ali G Show,” “Borat” and “Bruno,” and now the question is whether he can keep it up with “The Dictator,” which opens tomorrow.
The difference between “Borat” and “Bruno” from both a critical and monetary perspective already suggests that the comedian’s act is getting stale, which is perhaps why “The Dictator” drops the “mockumentary” style in favor of a traditional (yet no less vulgar) narrative.
“Borat” made more than $260 million worldwide, and “Bruno” only made half as much despite a better opening weekend (though to be fair “Borat” opened in fewer than 1,000 theaters). In terms of reviews, fans were less impressed by “Bruno” though critics still liked it enough that it sits at 67% on Rotten Tomatoes.
Cohen’s newest character, General Aladeen of the fictional Republic of Wadiya, certainly shares a bit more in common with Borat, though the sheer genius of the entire Borat character might never have an equal. Borat is a bumbling fool ignorant to his racism and sexism; General Aladeen appears to be a man so taken up by his sense of self-importance that he is ignorant to his own bigotry. The “Prince and the Pauper”-type story in place for “The Dictator” seems an excellent fit for this character.
Although the scene is set for a success, Cohen seems destined to be judged by the bar he set with “Borat.” Perhaps that’s rightfully so, but the comparison will likely be in regards to the quantity of moments in which theater-goers lose their shit, not the social commentary that so brilliantly underscores everything he does.
Undoubtedly there are people who mistake gross-out humor for Cohen’s greatest strength, not the fact that he challenges perceptions of obscenity by forcing comic situations out of our comfort zone. He exposes the true nature of our arbitrary standards for decency and always takes his chances doing so, even if most audiences will recoil in disgust.
What elevates his work, however, is how the story and the characters he creates expose our own ignorance. “Borat” does this better than any film in existence. Cohen embodies outlandish exaggerations of racism, sexism, anti-Semitism and general bigotry in order to show how unfounded and ridiculous these beliefs and behaviors are while simultaneously supporting the argument that in the right light, anything can be funny.
A lot of the intelligent thought here goes unobserved by most. For one, despite Borat’s flagrant anti-Semitism, Cohen himself is Jewish and when Borat speaks in his native Kazakh tongue, half the time he’s dropping bits of Hebrew. When Borat meets the the old Jewish couple, the two most normal people in the film, he flees them in terror. There’s a certain danger in perpetuating stereotypes and myths such as Jews having horns as you never know how someone ignorant might receive them, but he does it with such exaggeration that even the simplest of audiences have to find it at least a little absurd.
As Bruno, rather than playing a character who is hateful and ignorant, he plays the extreme stereotype himself—an extremely flamboyant man of ambiguous sexuality—and jabs at society’s discomfort with homosexuality. Although Bruno has a host of other issues that make him a funny character, the strength of that film is really in the few scenes that truly identify this rampant discomfort.
How “The Dictator” provides a social commentary will be at the heart of whether Cohen succeeds. There’s certainly room for him to poke at those who deny others the right to think and act as they wish as well as room to prove not all Arabs are terrorists.
While the comic aspects of what he does might vary film to film and ultimately determine his future in doing this kind of work, Cohen will always remain a top-notch comedian so long as he can find more characters that will challenge social and cultural perceptions.