Playing with stereotypes

Then playing Risk

There’s something inherently exciting about someone who comes out firing on all cylinders. Most people start slow learn their craft and then emerge fully formed. But a strong debut holds the promise of something truly transcendent down the line.

This is true in music film sports and almost any other professional field. Of course history suggests we should temper our excitement as we’re almost certain to be disappointed. And while it’s still too early to declare that Sacha Baron Cohen’s most fertile creative years are over there’s something about The Dictator that makes me think we’re entering a period of diminishing returns.

Like most people in their mid-20s I spent a good chunk of my university years in a stoned haze devouring episodes of Da Ali G Show . Cohen proved himself to be one of the few performers capable of providing biting social commentary that’s both funny and challenging. He’s taken on anti-Semitism homophobia and most other forms of bigotry and in doing so forced viewers to confront their own subconscious prejudices. You say you’re okay with homosexuality? Then why are you turning away? Cohen excelled at exposing the boorish tendencies that lay just beneath the surface of regular people.

His was a comedic talent that few could match. Like Dave Chappelle the way his best bits were received was as telling of his talent as anything else. I’ve sat with people who during Borat’s performance of “Throw the Jew Down the Well” were in hysterics. They didn’t seem particularly repulsed by the hillbilly audience’s reaction — even though that was the most interesting part of the song — they simply took it as one long Jewish joke.

Before I go any further I should note that Cohen has no obligation to continue challenging social norms. He’s already accomplished more than most in that regard and no one should blame him if he wants to spend the rest of his career simply being you know funny.

But so much of The Dictator ’s marketing has been predicated on Cohen’s reputation. From his red-carpet ash-spilling stunt at the Oscars to his interview with Larry King the film’s promotional campaign has encouraged us to recall Cohen’s previous characters. The film certainly feels timely — oppressive dictators have been in the news a lot lately in case you hadn’t noticed — but it’s hard to see how Cohen’s act will serve to illuminate anything about The Dictator ’s subject matter.

Again that’s fine. Cohen’s well within his rights to develop films that simply make us laugh. But if his most challenging material is behind him and he’s using the same performance techniques to tell less socially challenging stories it makes him a whole lot less compelling.

And my concern goes back to the reaction to “Throw the Jew Down the Well.” If all Cohen is doing is capitalizing on audiences’ predilection for laughing at portrayals of stereotypical Middle Easterners isn’t that as problematic as the views of his interview subjects from his earlier work?

When Chappelle walked away from his television show it was in large part because he felt segments of his audience were missing the subtext of his sketches. They weren’t laughing at what he was saying about racism in America they just found the racism funny.

Cohen doesn’t need to walk away from show business like Chappelle — hell Chappelle didn’t need to walk away either — but maybe he needs to step back from the whole racial stereotype thing. A performer as versatile as Cohen is going to find work. He was great in Martin Scorcese’s Hugo and a role as Monsieur Thenardier in Les Miserables is up next.

Cohen doesn’t have to rely on shock tactics so it’s time for him to move on.

This weekend’s other new release is Battleship and it takes us one step closer to the nine-hour adaptation of the game of Risk we’ve all been dreaming about. Like playing the game watching Risk will be incredibly boring unless you’re on drugs and will bring out the worst in you and all of your friends but it will also reaffirm that Australia is for some inexplicable reason the most important continent to strategically control in any geopolitical conflict.

In all seriousness though I’m way better than you at Risk. You don’t know it yet but it’s actually kind of embarrassing for you. If they made a movie about Risk you wouldn’t want to see it because it would inevitably end with you slouched in a corner lip quivering wondering why your Risk skills are so shitty. I actually feel kind of bad for you that’s how much better than you I am at Risk. You want to play Lord of the Rings Risk? Try to simply walk into Mordor I’ll drag your sorry self to the Shire and back. Harry Potter Risk? Come on Mudblood you wouldn’t even make it through platform nine and three quarters.

Seriously I’m way better than you at Risk. That’s all I’ve got to say about the movie Battleship .