Some consider Sacha Baron Cohen a comedic genius. Some consider him juvenile and lowbrow. Some consider him a mix of all those things. However you feel about him, it’s hard to deny that Baron Cohen has become a comedy powerhouse. With the release of his latest film, The Brothers Grimsby, it is time to look back at some of his work and discuss how truly revelatory or overrated his comedy is.
Keep in mind that Baron Cohen has co-starred in more than just the projects listed below. Hugo, Les Miserables and Sweeney Todd are just a few of the films Baron Cohen has popped up in, sometimes very memorably. However, we are going to focus solely on the films that he led and developed. Let’s take a walk down awkward, gross-out comedy lane.
Da Ali G Show
It all started with Da Ali G Show. The British comedy series introduced the world to Ali G, the know-nothing interviewer who got some huge guests to sit down and talk to him. While we had seen comedy like this before, we had never seen a character this well-developed and getting such impressive access. It was jaw-dropping to see Buzz Aldrin, David Beckham and even Donald Drumpf sit down with Ali G. The fact that they believed a person like him could exist adds a layer of brilliance.
But we didn’t just meet Ali G on Da Ali G Show. We were also treated to our first tastes of Bruno and Borat, two characters we will touch upon later. Altogether, Baron Cohen created something very special with the show. The fact he got away with so much in front of real people is astonishing. The fact that he stayed painfully funny through it all is absolutely remarkable.
Ali G Indahouse
Baron Cohen created a character who had become part of the cultural zeitgeist. So what did he do? He made a movie about him of course! Unlike the show that spawned him, Ali G wasn’t starring in a mockumentary this time. Instead, Indahouse was a straight forward narrative featuring G and his gang of just-as-clueless cohorts.
Baron Cohen nailed it as Ali G, of course, but most people regard Indahouse as a miss. Perhaps it’s the change of format and the lack of real world dignitaries and celebrities being interviewed by Ali G. Perhaps it’s the script, which isn’t as brilliant as other Baron Cohen work. Whatever the reason, something was missing from Ali G Indahouse and the air was a bit out of Baron Cohen’s balloon
Needless to say, Borat changed everything. It didn’t just change Baron Cohen’s career and life, it changed the comedy landscape. Borat took the world by storm and became a sensation seemingly overnight. Suddenly people were quoting Borat, vividly describing their favorite scenes and dressing as him for Halloween. The movie was a smash.
With good reason too. Borat is fantastic. Every scene in Borat is funny and some scenes are painfully, I-can’t-breathe hysterical. Not only is the comedy outstanding, the script is surprisingly strong for a mockumentary. So strong, in fact, that it nabbed an Oscar nomination for Best Screenplay.
Of course Baron Cohen was making fun of Borat. But he was also holding a mirror up to America and we saw some ugly, ugly things. We saw a gross, sadly predictable racism that popped up several times during Borat’s journey across America. Borat, wide-eyed and foreign to our culture, was getting a heaping helping of American hospitality and prejudice. Like great satire, Borat is truly hilarious but also a call for change. That’s surprising coming from a movie where two grown men fight naked in a hotel hallway.
Baron Cohen didn’t just create a comedy smash, he created a comedy classic. Years later, there are few people who don’t love Borat. It became a cultural touchstone, a monumental comedy achievement. Baron Cohen had set the bar very, very high and the world was anticipating what was next.
Borat changed the game and Bruno was tasked with following it up. Not an easy task. Needless to say, Bruno didn’t surpass Borat. Not by a long shot. To be fair, Bruno isn’t a bad movie. It’s funny and Baron Cohen is excellent as the flamboyant and outlandish Bruno. But it’s hard to look at Bruno without comparing it to Borat. When you do hold the two up side-by-side, you see that Bruno just doesn’t come close.
Bruno tries but maybe it doesn’t try hard enough. The script is nearly a beat-for-beat copy of Borat. It follows the same template with diminishing results. And while it’s definitely funny, it doesn’t reach the heights of Bruno. That being said, the finale including Bruno as his MMA alter ego “Straight Dave” is painfully awkward comedy bliss.
Baron Cohen’s mockumentary comedy style hadn’t grown tired by the end of Bruno but he was facing two big problems: he had run out of original characters from The Ali G Show and, most importantly, he was becoming recognizable. It’s hard to make prank comedy on unsuspecting people if everyone knows who you are. Borat, Ali G and Bruno couldn’t return for sequels, leaving Baron Cohen in uncharted territory.
Sacha Baron Cohen was at a crossroads: what would he do next? The answer was The Dictator, a film that wasn’t a mockumentary. Instead, this was a movie starring Baron Cohen as Admiral General Haffaz Aladeen, the ruthless dictator who runs the fictional country Wadiya. After a big mix up, Aladeen is left anonymous and on his own in the mean streets of New York. From there, he learns a lot about himself, America and what it means to be a normal person.
Sure, it’s essentially a retelling of the classic prince and the pauper tale but it was being done by Baron Cohen so it had an added edge. Still, it wasn’t his strongest work. However, even with a mediocre, by-the-numbers script, it’s not a terrible film by any stretch. You can see Baron Cohen poking and prodding at big picture issues like he has before. Despite the trappings of the genre and script, the film never completely veers into sentimentality like some feared it would. It’s still a Baron Cohen film, he never lost his bite. But you can feel the character and the performer straining to do more, more than the film ever achieves. This is a comedian who still has lots to say and sometimes his films can’t keep up with him.
Sacha Baron Cohen really is a comedic mastermind. Even though not all of his films have been classics, he has a strong track record. His new work is still always something to look forward to. We are all waiting and hoping for another film or show that delivers like Borat or Da Ali G Show. It might be awhile before Baron Cohen gives us something like that but you can feel he’s got it in him somewhere.