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The people v. Sacha Baron Cohen

With his latest comedy getting savaged by critics and audiences, it seems the world has turned against the erstwhile Borat. But, as Barry Hertz writes, it's all too easy to forget the power of our greatest satirists

Sacha Baron Cohen in Borat.

Sacha Baron Cohen in Borat.

Mark Schwartzbard

It's only funny until the joke's on you. That's the lesson that everyone learns too late, and one that the British seem to only be discovering now thanks to the release of The Brothers Grimsby, the latest cinematic firebomb from professional agent provocateur Sacha Baron Cohen. While the country was eager to egg on their native son as he eviscerated America in Borat, the Middle East in The Dictator and the rest of Europe in Bruno, Cohen's new film is apparently a joke gone too far.

A critique of chav culture – the allegedly loutish, violent and obscene working-class most familiar to North Americans as caricatures found on BBC's Little BritainThe Brothers Grimsby has been greeted with a hatred that's almost impressive since its U.K. release last month. The Guardian, which awarded Borat five stars back in 2006, ran a column decrying Cohen's "repulsive" new comedy. Empire said the film would inspire a moviegoer's face to become a "rictus of horror." And the Leicester Mercury delivered a succinct summary of disgust: "In which the privately schooled, Oxbridge-educated multimillionaire Sacha Baron Cohen invites us to laugh at his latest creation: a bloke with no job and 11 kids."

The reviews this side of the pond have been equally unkind, with The Hollywood Reporter, Variety and The New Yorker all delivering pans. (In a worrying move, the film was not screened for Canadian critics ahead of its release this Friday.) Add in a poorly received appearance at last month's Academy Awards and a weak international box-office take for Grimsby, and it seems that it's not just Britain, but the world at large that has turned on Sacha Baron Cohen.

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Mark Strong and Sacha Baron Cohen in The Brothers Grimsby.

Mark Strong and Sacha Baron Cohen in The Brothers Grimsby.

Daniel Smith

How easy it is to forget the power of our greatest satirists. Over the course of just a handful of features, Cohen has redefined the extremes of comedy. His films are not comforting or sentimental, like so many of today's coddling genre hits – they are nasty, brutal works that force audiences to confront legacies of immoral behaviour and Western guilt.

Cohen's films are deliberately hard to watch, even more so in a time when the culture is so acutely sensitive to anything that may carry even the whiff of offence. It's incorrect, of course, to chastise society for taking toward tolerance and inclusiveness, however small. But it's equally wrong for Cohen to suddenly become a man out of time, just because his art, provocative as it has always been, is now deemed too distracting or caustic as we march down the path toward societal healing.

It's easy to forget that when Borat (or, using its full title, Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan) was first released a decade ago, the most daring comedy out there was Wedding Crashers. Both films employed gross-out humour, but only Cohen's delivered a delirious edge of Swiftian satire so sharp you can still taste the blood. (Bonus: No painfully winking performance from Vince Vaughn, either.)

Sacha Baron Cohen as Ali G.

Sacha Baron Cohen as Ali G.

G.Keyte/Universal Studios/ZUMA Press

If you don't quite recall Borat's remarkably subversive core, then simply rewatch the film's early scene where Cohen-as-Borat visits a self-described "humour coach" in New York. On a whiteboard in the background is a list of all the most commonly deployed American jokes: "ethnic/racial," "dirty," "slapstick," "double entendre." Cohen then proceeds to eviscerate and redefine each one throughout the film, inventing a new kind of comedy along the way as he pulls back the curtain on America's inextricable chains of ignorance and violence.

Audiences ate it up, too. What started off as a minor 837-theatre North American run quickly ballooned into a full-on blockbuster, eventually earning $128-million (U.S.). It also, perhaps more predictably, led to a legacy now defined mostly by the howls of obnoxious bros yelling out, "Very niiiiiiice!" and "My wiiiiiiife!" But even that proves the film's lingering, ironic power: the very American idiots the film was mocking have embraced it, wholly unaware that they are revelling in a work of art that truly hates them.

Audiences would become less (and unfairly) enamoured with Cohen as his filmography expanded. For starters, the performer could only maintain his clever mockumentary-stunt conceit for so long – fame had made him, and his characters, impossible to hide. Cohen had already learned this lesson, to an extent, with his Ali G persona, who became so popular in Britain that he could no longer coax unwitting politicians into frank discussions about sex and hip hop. And so it was with Cohen's 2009 film Bruno that Cohen began to feel the first brush of a backlash.

Sacha Baron Cohen in Bruno.

Sacha Baron Cohen in Bruno.

Universal Pictures

Well, that and the fact that Bruno is a much more itchy, delightfully difficult film to experience than even Borat. The Western world is usually content to laugh at its own stupidity and the hatred of its neighbours, but ask us to reconsider the boundaries of sexuality and a certain chill effect falls into place. Bruno opens with Cohen's ditzy fashion journalist engaging in a montage of anal-sex acrobatics that can only be described as a homophobe's worst nightmare, an extreme manifestation of disgust that is just reflecting back its audience's own prejudices. Cohen only goes further from there, and in once scene focuses on an extended shot of an erect penis, whose urinary meatus comes alive through animation, enthusiastically mouthing the word, "Bruno!"

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So, an extreme jump from, say, Borat's naked elevator fight, with its blacked-out genitalia and uncomfortable, but resolutely heterosexual, man-on-man roughhousing. (That whole scene was sparked, remember, by a fight over which character had the right to masturbate to an image of Pamela Anderson.) Like much of Cohen's work, Bruno is unabashedly puerile – but often that's just the incentive audiences require when asked to embrace what they otherwise would ignore.

Bruno was Cohen's way of pushing back against his early adopters. It was brave, it was bold, but it lived in the shadow of Borat, earning only $60-million in North America. His next project, 2012's The Dictator, would continue this pattern of diminishing returns (earning just $59-million against a budget of $65-million), and also proved an unsuccessful test in whether fans would follow Cohen into scripted, narrative territory, even if he did wear a funny costume. Yet The Dictator is also a stealth work of comedy, a blistering treatise on anti-Semitism and political ignorance that dares its audience to laugh along with a lead character so repulsive that Moammar Gadhafi would wince.

Sacha Baron Cohen in The Dictator.

Sacha Baron Cohen in The Dictator.

Photo credit: Melinda Sue Gordon/Melinda Sue Gordon

It's a shame that filmmakers working outside of Cohen's sphere of influence have yet to figure out his power. His projects as a writer-star are vastly superior to his for-hire jobs, with even the industry's smartest and darkest comic voices (Adam McKay, Jody Hill, Tim Burton) failing to exploit his potential in everything from Sweeney Todd to Talladega Nights. (Although Cohen was the lone, if overused, bright spot in Tom Hooper's 2012 lumbering adaptation of Les Misérables.)

Which is all the more argument that Cohen is best left to his own devices – if, that is, we'll ever let him near a camera again after The Brothers Grimsby. And if we somehow find the time to stop taking easy offence, and start asking ourselves why Cohen feels the need to make fun of us in the first place.

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