Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Step aside, Baron Cohen

I haven't seen Bruno, but I have the sense it could be the beginning of the end for Sacha Baron Cohen.

It seems to be liked by only a small percentage of the people who liked Borat, banking less than half of Borat's $128 million box office and quickly dwindling with only $3 million and change this past weekend. He doesn't have any more guerrilla personas left to play. And let's be honest -- he's a bit too weird-looking to play just "regular roles" in the movies. How many of his characters do you remember that don't have five-letter names starting with B?

Well, who needs Sacha Baron Cohen when you have Russell Brand?

When I first started writing this blog, I envisioned a periodic feature called "In praise of ..." and then the name of some film personality (most likely an actor or actress) who I was feeling particularly jolly about at the moment. The first one was to be "In praise of ... Emma Stone," and was to have hyped the co-star of The House Bunny and Superbad, the spunky young talent who's like an intelligent version of Lindsay Lohan. But that was right at the start, when I had a million other fertile ideas (or ideas I considered to be fertile -- not the same thing). This hypothetical post got pushed too far away from my viewing of House Bunny to seem time sensitive.

Well, even though I'm not calling this "In praise of ... Russell Brand," it's going to function as the de facto first in that series anyway.

Now I should say that I'm not exactly breaking fresh ground by praising Brand. In fact, I have a feeling he's already been through a couple praise cycles -- praised, then hated for awhile, then praised again, and now maybe hated again. I don't really know. I understand he's been a "love him or hate him" host of the MTV Video Music Awards. And that he made some kind of prank phone calls that got him kicked off the BBC.

Whatever. I'm here to praise his movie work. Not only was he the perfect final ingredient to push Forgetting Sarah Marshall over the top, but he just added a much-needed spice to Bedtime Stories. Well, he didn't just add it -- but I just saw the movie tonight, so I thought I'd write a little something about him. (Could that just be because I have two longer features I'd like to write before Friday, and can't summon the energy/organization/research for them now? Perhaps.)

Is he really very similar to Baron Cohen? Probably not. They're both lanky comedic personalities from England who like to push the envelope, especially in terms of staging elaborate stunts. Though Brand is known for marketing his own persona, whereas Baron Cohen is famously a chameleon without a knowable "self."

But I will say I've been enjoying him better at the movies than Baron Cohen.

Let's take his role in Forgetting Sarah Marshall. Given that he plays a foppish, uber-hip rock star from England who steals the hero's girl, nine scripts out of ten would have also made him a total prat. But not this script, and not this performer. Sure, he's got some unendearing qualities, but overall, Brand's Aldous Snow is as likeable as anyone else in the movie -- I'd say more likeable, except that one of the most commendable things about the script by Jason Segel and Judd Apatow is how they give sympathetic dimension to all the film's characters. (Sarah Marshall herself is more insecure than insensitive). Instead of amassing artificial jealousy for his rival, Snow reaches out to Segel's Peter Bretter and befriends him. But not in some gooey way, either -- he's a beguiling mix of glamorous artifice and insightful forthrightness, a space cadet with his head screwed on correctly. And boy does he have style and personality.

Bedtime Stories is a lot more of a standard script -- Brand plays a hotel employee who's the best friend of Adam Sandler's character. And yes, his scenes feel a bit shoehorned in for additional comic relief. But Brand can make a bit about his character having night terrors funnier than that standard material would suggest. A lot funnier. And then there's the part of him -- his Brandness, you might say -- that you can tell has to be an improvisation from what was written for him. In his strangely-not-annoying sing-songy British accent, he weaves intelligently goofy and wry observations about the world, and pushes laughter out of us, just with his turns of phrase. My wife and I needed a pick-me-up tonight, and we both started smiling as soon as he sauntered on screen.

So what if I'm out of synch with the praise cycle for Brand. Maybe I'm supposed to hate him right now. I don't know. These "controversial" figures fall in and out of our good graces at the drop of a hat. Maybe I'm supposed to be "so over his shtick." But I'm not.

This is my blog. I can praise whoever I want.

1 comment:

Don Handsome said...

Kudos to you Vance for pointing out something I would never have considered: how much cooler Russell Brand is than Sacha Baron Cohen. Its not that I didn't think Brand was cool before reading your post...I guess I just didn't think that there was much room for his oversized subversive ego to grow in America.

I abhor Bruno, its a piece of garbage that I wish I could forget seeing...but I do definitely think that Russell Brand - the guy who effortlessly and crisply asked Terri Gross if she'd ever tried crack cocaine - could have done wonders with a role like that. Brand is selfless and smooth where Baron Cohen is awkward and angry...I'm getting to the point where I wish that Baron Cohen would fade away to Tom Green levels of obscurity, but I feel like I could watch Russell Brand do just about anything these days.