Geography as important as comedy to Sacha Baron Cohen

Kazakhstan, Austria, North Africa, Staines, Mid-west America – and now Grimsby. Welcome to Sacha Baron Cohen’s globus maximus, a bulging, burping landscape ripe for exploitation as the performer, formerly known as the one who might play Freddie Mercury, tears up another neighbourhood.

The cherrypicking of geographical locations has always been a fascinating sideshow of Cohen’s flamboyant, and at times, outrageous comic performances.

As Ali G, he chose Staines as his comedic crutch, generally with outstanding results, sharp observations and some devilish tanking of well-known celebrities and stars.

Then we came to Borat – very funny, yes – but not so much for the people left in his slipstream like the Romanian villagers who claim they were duped and filed a lawsuit against the slippery chameleon.

Austria was next to get in the neck. Bruno, a gay fashion icon, was a funny, engaging character most of the time until a full-blown Sacha component in all his films – meanness – started to overwhelm the storytelling ability and create a whiff of bad taste that hasn’t since dispersed.

The Dictator – though achingly contemporary – was more of the same. Strong gags and laugh-out loud moments camouflaged a story that drifted off to nowhere in particular and left viewers wondering if SBC really had anything new to say, apart from ride in, humiliate and depart.

And now we have Grimbsy, a curious blend of spy saga and northern swagger that again has some decent gags but generally morphs into a queasy viewing experience with its lazy accents, tiresome working-class references and dead-end narrative.

The point about all the subjects and characters of these films is they can be seen as easy targets. Does that matter? Not really, if Cohen can convince you that he is a comedian, first and foremost, and his duty is to entertain us for 90 or so minutes (the fact that Grimsby barely makes the 80-minute mark suggests he may not have the storytelling stamina to do so in the future). But on the flip side, there have been a number of ‘victims’ counting the cost of Sacha’s entry on their turf and neighbourhood – a Palestinian man duped in Bruno for example – and this can create the impression that SBC likes to use his power against the weak, naive and defenceless

In fact, if you take these few words: Austria, Palestine, Romania, Grimbsy, Rapper, African leader – and say comedy – there’s an eye-rolling predictability about what a sixth-form student might come up with, never mind a world-renowned comedian.

But what differentiates Cohen from that debating arena is his genuine talent as a character actor. As in Hugo, for example, he’s shown that he can take on challenging acting roles and even flourish in them.

Long-term that may be how he settles down but it was for a film that wasn’t made – the Freddie Mercury biopic I referred to earlier – that seems to give the game away in terms of what makes Sacha Baron Cohen tick.

Queen drummer Roger Taylor said he didn’t want the film to be a joke but wanted to be ‘moved’. So in essence he was saying ‘I don’t want Freddie the tabloid creation: a preening, pompous frontman with a questionable lifestyle but I want the story of a true artist whose legendary status is secured not only because of his music but also his fragility and vulnerability’.

Judging by Grimsby’s final cut, Taylor might have got the tabloid cinema he was so afraid of.

And that simply wouldn’t do as a fitting legacy for a serious artist like Freddie Mercury.

But it might have been sufficient for Sacha Baron Cohen…

Line of Beauty (7)

“There may be a great fire in our soul, but no-one ever comes to warm himself at it, and the passers-by see only a little bit of smoke coming through the chimney, and pass on their way.”

Vincent Van Gogh, July 1880, from The Letters of Vincent Gogh, edited by Mark Roskill