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Great Debate: After The Dictator, Should Sacha Baron Cohen Change His Act?

Reviews for Sacha Baron Cohen's new comedy The Dictator are in, and a lot of them-- ours included-- seem to think it's time for him to retire his worn-out schtick. Baron Cohen had a huge hit, both critically and commercially, with the outrageous Borat, which had him playing an oddball foreigner set loose across America and showing us at our worst, and occasionally our best. He tried to repeat the trick with Bruno a few years later, to far less success, and now with The Dictator he's venturing for the first time into fully scripted comedy, though once again playing an oddball foreigner who finds himself adrift in America.

Katey, who wrote that negative The Dictator review, left the movie wanting Baron Cohen to move on to more roles like the one he had in Hugo, using his physical comedy skills to fit into a larger, more solid story. Sean, on the other hand, loved The Dictator, and wants Baron Cohen to continue crafting these outrageous and funny movies whether or not there's a story to hold them together. So, of course, there was only one option left: Great Debate! Read below as Sean tries to argue for Sacha Baron Cohen's comic genius and the greatness of The Dictator and as Katey simply closes her eyes and look ahead to Sacha Baron Cohen singing "Master of the House" in Les Miserables later this year. Who will win the Great Debate? There's only one way to find out.

KATEY: So, Sean, I'll be honest-- I pretty much hated The Dictator. And more than hating the movie, I kind of hated Sacha Baron Cohen for extending his schtick to another character who clearly didn't work, especially in a scripted film. I felt betrayed by him in a weird way. But it sounds like you felt the opposite.

SEAN: I did. And it's so hard to debate comedy, because everyone's tastes are going to be different, and what I find funny might be horribly unfunny to you or someone else. But I think I feel the complete opposite of you regarding SBC's willingness to create new characters in the name of comedy. Because I'll always prefer an actor taking a chance on a strange new creation then what most people do these days, which is to sequelize (MIB 3), remake or reboot (Dark Shadows).

KATEY: Alright, I'm with you there. I'm glad that Sacha Baron Cohen is among the people with the power to make whatever comedies they want, and I'd much rather see more stuff from him than the same nonsense from Adam Sandler. But The Dictator felt, in a way, like a bad sequel to Borat and Bruno, and like he was out of ideas for creating these outrageous new characters and setting them loose in the "real" world. And after his really good supporting role in Hugo and what I'm hoping will be good work in Les Miserables this year, I'm wondering if that's not the best way for him to go for a while.

SEAN: See, that's where I disagree. I didn't understand what the hell he was doing in Hugo. THAT was bad shtick in a movie that really didn't need it, and as a result, his bumbling oaf-ishness came off as ridiculous. Cohen does have this strange track record of popping up in musicals though, with Sweeney Todd and now Les Mis. I wonder what that is. And I won't ever fault him for trying those roles. Who wouldn't want to work with Scorsese? But when I see him floundering on screen (like I thought he did in Hugo), I want him to get back to a Dictator-like comedy as quick as possible, if not sooner.

KATEY: Agh, I don't even know why we agreed to do this Great Debate! We clearly are living on totally different planets!

SEAN: That's why we're debating!! :)

KATEY: I'm not going to argue that Cohen was the best thing about Hugo, but I thought what he did worked. And in The Dictator, I feel like the line between pampered, evil dictator and pampered comedian was just a little too fuzzy. It seemed to promise this Sandler-esque future in which Cohen gets to do whatever he wants, and crawls so far up his own assholes he's never funny again. And I think we can both agree we don't want that.

SEAN: Well, that will only happen if Dictator makes Grown Ups-level box office, and I don't think it will. Because Cohen isn't pandering to the mainstream. He has a running gag about a severed head in this movie. Who the hell else would even dare try that today? Forget about the near-throwaway bit about celebs whoring themselves out to foreign dignitaries. There's probably a real truth to that! And Ed Norton exiting a men's room after a Chinese ambassador has his way with him is hardly even acknowledged. I guess in a world where formerly edgy comics like Eddie Murphy are being marginalized left and right, I'm shocked and empowered by what Cohen tries in these comedies. And he was self-aware enough to realize that he had to go scripted, since the Borat-Bruno formula had been played, and he still found a way to consistently push the envelope. Also, the comedy is short, sweet, and to the point. Get in. Get out. Perfect.

KATEY: Ugh, and i felt like the movie's 83 minute running time was twice that. I think what bugs me about it is that even if the jokes are fine, the story isn't there at all-- Baron Cohen is way more interested in pushing the envelope and getting good jokes in there, which is partly why the press conference was funnier than the movie. But if he's not really trying to tell a story, why bother centering all these movies around him? Why not let him take his talent for writing and acting, team up with another actor and writer, and tell an actual story that lets him break out of this weird-foreigner rut?

SEAN: Well, I do agree that the weird-foreigner thing could probably be put on the shelf for a while. But that's always been his act, going all the way back to Ali G. But here's where we disagree right down to the root and might never land on the same page. My all-time favorite comedy is (and likely always will be) Airplane! The story? Non-existent. Dude has to land a plane after the pilot gets sick. But it is a relentless stream of jokes that only aim for one thing: Be funny. Does it always make sense? Nope. It didn't make sense when Aladeen had to deliver a baby in the grocer, and loses his cell phone in Kathryn Hahn's vagina, either. But it was so bizarre, I had to laugh. Think about how long it took for someone to design that vagina, just so it could open and close as Aladeen tried to talk to the phone on speaker. You won't see that kind of commitment in The Watch. Even when The Dictator is failing at a joke, which happens, it's being more original than 95% of its competition.

KATEY: Alright, your Airplane! comparison is valid, and I can't argue much with movies that are nothing but jokes-- I really do love Borat. But you never want an actor, especially one as talented as Cohen, to only make a certain kind of movie, and I'm worried that people like you supporting The Dictator will lock him into this box. That's right, Sean, you're hurting cinema!

SEAN: But I'm helping heal our differences in the Middle East. Here's the thing. Just as you are tiring of Cohen's brand of humor (and I will admit that if he immediately does another similar movie, I might be waving the white flag as well), the last person to try and do this brand of offbeat-character shtick was Mike Myers. And that gave us The Love Guru. No matter what you think of Cohen, The Dictator is way better than The Love Guru. Is he Peter Sellers? No. But he isn't Mike Myers. Not yet, anyway. I'm reminded of an Aladeen quote. "It's not amazing. It's just a little less shit." Maybe that's The Dictator in a nutshell, and for now, I'll take it.

KATEY: It's sad that modern comedies have beaten us down to this point, but I can't begrudge you thinking The Dictator is better than The Love Guru. I mean, I never saw The Love Guru, but I saw Jack & Jill, and nothing is worse than that. Can we at least agree that we both want to see him stretch a bit in Les Miserables? And if the next The Dictator is coming, maybe he'll have another role like that to balance it out?

SEAN: Yes. He's capable of more. I agree. The challenge will be for filmmakers to figure out how to use him. The same problem plagues most comedians in films. Can they be serious? Must they always go for the joke? Hopefully is Cohen reveals a stronger performance side in Les Mis, he'll get more Aladeen reviews, instead of the Aladeen review you are giving him for The Dictator.

KATEY: Oh man, you have totally bought into this joke! Next you'll be speaking in the fake Wadiyan language he made up just for that one scene and never used again.

SEAN: I'll wait for the DVD. Something tells me the deleted scenes could run as long as the feature, itself. Can't wait!

Sean O’Connell is a journalist and CinemaBlend’s Managing Editor. He's frequently found on Twitter at @Sean_OConnell. ReelBlend cohost. A movie junkie who's Infatuated with comic-book films. Helped get the Snyder Cut released, then wrote a book about it.