You Taste Of America: Sacha Baron Cohen's Finest Moments On Film

This weekend sees the release of The Brothers Grimsby, the latest comedy from Sacha Baron Cohen. And here's the thing about Mr. Cohen – even when I don't love his movies, I find him fascinating. From his early career as a television prankster who roped real people into interacting with his fictional characters, to his Hollywood career, where he worked with directors like Martin Scorsese and Tim Burton, he has never shown us a half-measure. Cohen is a performer who commits to his characters and his concepts like no one else.

And since his new movie is on the horizon, this certainly feels like the perfect opportunity to run down his finest moments on screen.

"Don't Forget to Smile"

It's telling that Martin Scorsese cast Cohen in Hugo, a film whose supporting roles are occupied with the likes of Ben Kingsley, Christopher Lee, Michael Stuhlbarg, Ray Winstone, Emily Mortimer, Richard Griffiths, and Jude Law. At first, Cohen is very much the comic relief villain of this adventure – a bumbling station inspector who can't for the life of him capture the title orphan. But the story offers him new dimension with each passing scene, slowly allowing this wounded (figuratively and literally) character to transform into a human being. In the film's final scene, which gives a moment of closure for each and every character, Cohen is only given a few seconds to let us to see that he's finally starting to take care of his body, mind, and soul. He pulls it off.

"My Name Is James Bond. James...Bond."

Across 18 episodes of Da Ali G Show, Cohen's flagship character found himself in so many remarkable interviews and irritated so many fascinating subjects. Almost every sequence is a gem, with Cohen's hilariously undereducated, faux gangster testing the patience of cops and businessmen and government officials. However, one sequence stands out above the rest in my mind. Ali G travels to Hollywood to pitch a TV show, titled Spyz, to a series of baffled producers. Naturally, his pilot is amateurish garbage that no one will ever want to air. Watching the producers watch this junk, and then watching them try to avoid telling this guy that's he brought them garbage, is skin-crawling and hilarious and Da Ali G Show in a nutshell. As he would prove time and time again, America is the greatest straight man a comic actor could ask for.

"The Barber of Kings"

One of the biggest problems with Tim Burton's lavishly produced adaption of Broadway's Sweeney Todd is that he cast a bunch of actors who simply weren't equipped to perform Stephen Sondheim's challenging musical numbers. It become all the more obvious when Cohen enters as Adolfo Pirelli, a lavishly dressed con man who is pulled into a shaving contest with the murderous barber Sweeney Todd after his "miracle elixir" for preventing hair loss is exposed as a sham. Cohen brings the right blend of menace and whimsy to to Pirelli and, unlike too many of the people surround him, he's perfectly equipped to sing his song.

"Why Are You Guys so Anti-dictators?"

The Dictator suffers the same problems as the not-on-this-list Ali G Indahouse – Cohen is often at his best when he's operating in the wild without a proper script. While sporadically funny, this film has more in common with a typical Adam Sandler film than the fierce guerrilla comedy of his previous projects. And then the climax roles around and the displaced dictator Admiral General Haffaz Aladeen (Cohen) emerges from hiding after a failed assassination attempt and gives a speech sticking up for authoritarian regimes. This scene has all of the shock and awe that was missing from the rest of the film, as this horrifying character tears into the the American political system and exposes more than a few things that people were furious about back in 2012. Heck, we're still angry about them now.

"Austria Gay TV?"

Most of Cohen's unwitting co-stars/prank victims react to Ali G's nonsense with irritation and Borat's racism with shocking geniality, but Brüno often seems to bring out the ugliest side of humanity. Cohen's flamboyantly gay Austrian fashionista is a silly character who often is the butt of the joke, like when he interviewed Paula Abdul while using other people as furniture. But more often than not, Bruno is enraging the homophobic and riling up people who simply cannot stand to be in the same room as a gay man. While the final scenes of the feature film version of Brüno (where Cohen instigates a riot during an MMA cage fight by making out with his opponent) will never leave my mind, this scene from Da Ali G Show is my go-to memory for Brüno. At first, these dressed-for-the-beach bros gleefully participate in Bruno's silly television program, showing off their physiques and rear ends and having a big, dumb, gay time. But when Cohen informs them that they're on "Austria Gay TV," that changes everything. His reaction, to repeatedly mutter "Austria Gay TV?!" in a growing rage, has stuck with me from the moment I first saw this segment.

"May George Bush Drink the Blood of Every Man, Woman, and Child in Iraq!"

Many of the best Cohen moments find him infuriating people. Others find him risking his personal safety to ensure a laugh. The best scene in Borat, and possibly the finest moment in his career so far, finds him infuriating a gigantic crowd of people who truly seem to want him dead. Of course, that only happens after Cohen does what he does best and exposes the inherent prejudices of your typical American. Hell, your typical human being. Invited to sing the National Anthem at a rodeo, the well-meaning but impossibly racist, sexist, and anti-Semitic Borat first whips the crowd into a frenzy as he encourages the total destruction of Iraq. And then he mangles the National Anthem and the crowd turns on him in an instant. It's a remarkable comedy bit and like so much of Cohen's finest work, it's just as terrifying as it is funny.

"I Will Not Shake Your Hand, But I Will Give You This"

It's no wonder that director Adam McKay and Cohen have collaborated a few times since Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby. Both of them love their raunchy, immature jokes, but both of them also love tearing America open, seeing what makes the nation tick, and exposing our faults for satire and laughs. In this NASCAR racing comedy, McKay found the perfect outlet to poke certain aspects of American culture where it hurts and Cohen found an amazing comedic villain in Jean Girard, a Frenchman who beats American racers at their own game and makes it easy. While it may not seem like a big deal now, watching him congratulate Will Ferrell's Ricky Bobby after winning a race with a long, passionate kiss was simply not something you saw in a mainstream comedy back in 2006. McKay, Ferrell, and Cohen deserve serious props for helping to break down that particular barrier – we take it for granted now.

"Master of the House"

2012's Les Misérables is a bit of a disaster, a chintzy-looking, awkwardly directed take on one of the greatest stage musicals ever conceived. However, the faults (mostly) don't lie with the cast and Cohen's Thénardier is a highlight in a film with few. Like with the stage version, he arrives when things are at their bleakest to inject some much-needed comedy into the proceedings and Cohen nails the character's low comedy and slightly sinister whimsy.