What if you made a joke and no one laughed? That's exactly what seems to be happening to Sacha Baron Cohen as he rolls out his latest creation, The Dictator, over the past few months. With his madman beard, gaudy wardrobe and gold-plated pistol, the Cohen's General Aladeen character calls to mind every Middle Eastern or African despot combined and looks just as ridiculous as Borat and Brüno, but Cohen's publicity stunts this time around are getting old fast. The latest is a screening invitation floating around Washington, D.C. that reads, "President Robert Mugabe and the Ministry of Education, Sport, Art, and Culture invite you to the Premiere of The Dictator" at the Zimbabwe embassy. Having received a copy of the invitation, The Washington Post called up the embassy, which knew nothing of the event. In a blog post on Tuesday, The Post's Emily Heil did not seem amused.
This brings us to the larger question of what the heck Cohen is doing while parading around as his ridiculous characters. He's not exactly charming. In promoting The Dictator, which opens on May 16, Cohen's been sexist -- he said at a press conference in New York that he and Gaddafi "signed up to rent Miranda Kerr for next month." He threatened Matt Lauer's family on Today. At the Oscar's he showed up in full costume and proceded to spill what he said were Kim Jong Il's ashes on Ryan Seacrest. (Cohen later apologized to Seacrest.) And while he's certainly getting a lot of publicity for the stunts, he's not exactly breaking new ground.
Furthermore, as NPR's Mark Hirsh argued in a column on Monday, he inevitably comes off as selfish. "Most people with a substantial role in a nominated movie would have attended in the spirit of supporting their film," Hirsh wrote of Cohen's Oscar appearnace. "But instead of celebrating Martin Scorsese's lovely Hugo like a normal actor, Baron Cohen opted to tromp around in character. … Rather than drawing attention to the work that was being honored that night, he apparently preferred to say, in a funny accent, 'ME ME ME ME ME!'"
In the past, the media has colluded with Cohen in the promotion of his films, interviewing him in character for Borat, eliciting comedic gems like this one from Entertainment Weekly's Josh Rottenberg in 2006:
As a TV journalist, which American TV journalists do you admire most and why?
I like very much Barbara Walters. She is unlike any Kazakh woman I have seen, she have no hair on her face or chest, and her teeth grow only on inside of her mouth.
Or this from Vanity Fair's Rich Cohen:
Describe a typical American.
The mens are very friendly with sexy physiques, and the womens look different to any Kazakh womens I have ever seen. Their teeth only grow on inside of their mouths, and most of them do not look strong enough to pull a plough, or even punch a horse to sleep.
WIth jokes that good, no wonder he repeated it.
Then again, even as his antics are themselves growing long in the tooth, Cohen's definitely getting people talking about The Dictator. And whether it's funny or not, the buzz is bound to sell some movie tickets. As Borat would say, "That's..." Well, presumably he'd have something to say.