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I have a feeling "The Dictator" is going to be an important movie for Sacha Baron Cohen.
"Borat" was lightning in a bottle. He'd been building up to that moment for a while, and 20th Century Fox did everything right in releasing the film. They turned it into a moment where you had to see what it was, even if you didn't want to, just so you could be part of the conversation.
With "Bruno," there was an entirely different set of expectations placed on the film and its performance, and it was harder for Cohen to shoot because people were aware of him and aware of his techniques. And while I think it's a very funny film, I also think there's only so far you can go in ambush comedy. What makes me respect Cohen's work isn't the "gotcha" element of springing something on an unsuspecting person, but rather the depth of character work he does in creating these comic personas.
Lately, he's been taking roles in other people's movies, and he's doing very good work. I liked him a lot in "Hugo," and I'm excited to see what he does with the character of Scotty in Quentin Tarantino's "Django Unchained." The things I've heard about the work he's been doing on the Freddie Mercury film he's been trying to get made gives me real hope that it's going to be something special.
And in the meantime, he's back to big broad character comedy, and he's working with Larry Charles again, and it seems like they're moving away from the gotcha thing into a sort of bumping-up-against-reality situational comedy. The notion of playing an insane and terrifying dictator as the hero of a comedy is outrageous enough that I'm willing to bet Charles and Cohen and their co-writers Alec Berg, David Mandel, and Jeff Schaffer had plenty of material to choose from.
The question is whether this is what the public wants from him, and whether or not Cohen's going to continue in the career of self-generating comedy character machine, which can be really difficult for any actor to pull off over time. If he's an actor for hire, a guy who steps into projects and brings his undeniable talent to bear on the problem of bringing other people's words to life, I'm sure he could make a very nice career of that. But to be the guy who sort of nurtures the entire thing into fruition with a small team of collaborators... the stakes are much higher, and I think it's important for that reason that this one really connect.
If I'm not mistaken, though, this is also a "Prince and the Pauper" riff, with Cohen playing a second role as a lowly goatherd who gets mistaken for the Dictator, and we don't really see any of that in the trailer. We also don't see Anna Faris, who's the female lead in the film. We get a little Ben Kingsley, a little John C. Reilly, a hint of what we can expect from the Dictator himself, and that's it.
What do you think? Is Cohen's comedy evolving? Or is it inevitable that he move on from this sort of thing because there's only so many times he can pull this sort of thing off?
We'll see when "The Dictator" opens May 11, 2012.