Sacha Baron Cohen and his Four By Two Films will develop a feature for Paramount Pictures inspired by Cecil Chao, the Hong Kong billionaire who offered $65 million to any man who succeeded in marrying his lesbian daughter. Chao’s offer made international headlines last week following reports that his daughter had a French church bless her relationship with her longtime girlfriend. The film’s tentatively titled The Lesbian, and is a potential starring vehicle for Baron Cohen, who presumably would play the billionaire. He’ll produce through his Four By Two Films banner. A writer has not been attached.
The key to a project like this will be to satire the homophobia, megalomania, and alienation from family Cecil Chao represents. The problem with Baron Cohen’s work is that, for every singalong to “Throw The Jew Down The Well,” he tends to elicit total decency from people: his sense of what constitutes exposing someone is not as well-calibrated as he thinks it is. In Hugo, he gave one of the better performances of his career as a rigid, wounded veteran of the Great War who inflicted his pain on other people and cut himself off from kindness, but that was when he was being directed by Martin Scorsese from a script by John Logan. Hopefully Baron Cohen has the good sense to get home help on this one. It’s a story that could cut deeply if done correctly. And it would be nice to have it land.
Looking back, superhero movies and a boom in Middle Eastern terrorists on television and film were probably the inevitable pop culture responses the September 11 attacks, the former a fantasy of stopping the worst before it happens without loss of life and treasure, the latter an attempt to personify an enemy most Americans hadn’t even considered. But while most of these cultural references have been more allusion than direct reference, the Joker’s demented drag as a substitute for Osama bin Laden, Oded Fehr in Sleeper Cell instead of Mohammad Atta, The Avengers and The Dictator both seem to me to be addressing September 11 and its aftermath with unusual directness, if to very different effect.
The Avengers is hardly the first post-9/11 movie to have superheroes rampage through New York, causing property damage and loss of life along the way. But I was struck, in the moment when Thor, doing battle with his brother Loki atop Stark Tower, forces him to look out at the city Loki’s forces were laying waste to, trying to force him to recognize the stupid, destructive futility of his attack. The crash of alien invaders into skyscrapers was one of the most striking visual allusions to the September 11 attacks I’ve seen in an action movie, flowers of fire blooming from pillars of steel in an eruption of violence hugely more widespread than the terror accomplished by 19 angry men in three hijacked planes.
The buildings didn’t fall. We didn’t have to go to war, because we could shut the border between our world and the one from which our enemies came. We didn’t even have to conduct a mop-up operation or interrogate detainees because when that portal closed, the invaders collapsed like toys (interestingly, while in Avengers captivity, Loki assumes he’ll be tortured and Nick Fury certainly seems prepared to do so, but it’s Black Widow who talks information out of the mad god without touching him). This isn’t just a fantasy of an easy dynamic, of revenge on the bad guys as Adam Serwer has written at Mother Jones. It’s a dream of resilience and clean war, where we can suffer greater losses and survive; where we can solve our problem without putting as many men and women at risk of death, deformity, or traumatic brain injury; where we can end the war in a day; where we can avoid doing grievous harm to ourselves and our values in the process.
The Dictator doesn’t perform alchemy on our post-9/11 fears, it mocks them. Sacha Baron Cohen’s upcoming comedy about a Middle Eastern dictator adrift in New York City takes on issues ranging from anti-Arab sentiment. But it also features an extended joke, which appears at the end of this red band trailer, that derives its humor from the idea that a pair of tourists in a helicopter are stupid to think that they might be the victims of a 9/11 style attack again:
It’s a poor choice of target. Publications like The Onion and Modern Humorist dived in immediately after 9/11 to start making fun of the hijackers themselves, and the Taliban and al Qaeda more broadly, turning them into small, delusional, murderous, isolated men rather than giving them the deference of treating them like an existential threat to the United States. It’s that kind of thinking that leads to raids to take out Osama bin Laden directly, rather than grinding wars that have accomplished little more than giving the sense that the country responding with force equal to the trauma we felt on September 11 itself. If you want to make fun of that trauma, it makes more sense to mock the things that it’s made us do to ourselves, be it the threat level system, invasive TSA searches, or watch lists. For all the movie’s other fantasies, Bruce Banner’s indignant request to know why “Captain America’s on a threat list?” in The Avengers says a lot more about the idiocies of post-9/11 vigilance than mocking the terror of two middle-aged tourists who think they’re about to die.
I’m a tad tired of Sacha Baron Cohen’s wacky antics, and thought Hugo was a nice showcase of what he can do if he’s trying to be something other than utterly outrageous. But is it me, or does The Dictator look…kind of good?
It’s Baron Cohen’s boldness applied to a project that almost no American filmmaker would dare touch (though the Brits have) and almost none could: treating terrorists as if they and their awful aspirations can be funny, as well as horrific. And there’s something really valuable in making terrorists small and pathetic, rather than giants we need to cower in fear from. Laughing at someone’s ideology is a good way to marginalize it. But I also like something I didn’t realize the movie was going to do, which is tackle the lives of dictators in exile. There’s something pretty funny in juxtaposing the tweeness of New York organic crunchiness with the excess of kleptocrats. Baron Cohen’s dictator has more in common with the Real Housewives than he does with them.
Sacha Baron Cohen Has Been Banned from the Oscars |
In an act of sublime self-seriousness, the Academy has banned comedian Sacha Baron Cohen from the Academy Awards this weekend for fear that he’ll show up as the outrageous authoritarian ruler he’s playing in his upcoming movie The Dictator. It does seem like a bit of an obnoxious publicity stunt for Baron Cohen, and a sign of how he views his very good work as the disabled and embittered train station master in Martin Scorcese’s Hugo, which is up for a slew of awards. But the Academy comes across as awfully over-sensitive about what is, at its core, a deeply silly and self-celebratory promotional event for its products. Or maybe The Dictator just cuts a little close for the many Hollywood celebrities who have taken huge payments to perform for authoritarian leaders, a practice that became awfully uncomfortable last year during the Arab Spring—the movie show’s Baron Cohen’s character paying to sleep with starlets including Megan Fox.