BROTHERS IN BUF­FOON­ERY

Sacha Baron Co­hen shares much with Peter Sellers. What he needs is a Kubrick, writes Rob­bie Collin

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Profile - Grimbsy

Like his idol Peter Sellers, the Grimbsy star is a mas­ter of clown­ing, silly voices, and all-too-be­liev­able car­i­ca­tures. Now he just needs his own Kubrick. “There is no me,” Sellers once said. “I do not ex­ist. There used to be a me, but I had it sur­gi­cally re­moved.” He was talk­ing not to a bi­og­ra­pher or psy­chi­a­trist, but to Ker­mit the Frog: he made the com­ment dur­ing a guest ap­pear­ance on The Mup­pet Show, while wear­ing a corset, a Vik­ing hel­met, a sin­gle box­ing glove and an auburn wig.

This was, of course, wish­ful think­ing. The real Sellers was any­thing but non-ex­is­tent: he was no­to­ri­ously self­ish and abu­sive, and wres­tled with ad­dic­tions and manic de­pres­sion through­out his life. You can see why the idea of a per­former who was noth­ing more than his char­ac­ters ap­pealed to him.

Sellers comes to mind when watch­ing Grimsby, the new film from comic ac­tor Sacha Baron Co­hen. There’s a se­quence in which Baron Co­hen’s char­ac­ter, a Ben­e­fits Street- style lager­swig­ging grotesque called Nobby Butcher, has to pose as a Bri­tish spy and se­duce the glam­orous wife of an en­emy agent.

Due to a mis­un­der­stand­ing, Nobby thinks his tar­get has come to un­block the toi­let, and lures a fab­u­lously obese cham­ber­maid back to his suite in­stead. He then en­tices her into bed with a sup­pos­edly so­phis­ti­cated ac­cent that sounds like Roger Moore try­ing to talk af­ter heavy den­tal surgery.

It’s ex­actly the kind of thing Sellers ex­celled at: vir­tu­oso silly voices, car­i­ca­tures piled on top of car­i­ca­tures, and a sense of barely re­pressed lu­nacy, as if the scene is al­ways on the verge of fizzing off in an un­fore­seen di­rec­tion, like a wonky fire­work.

If Baron Co­hen is the new Sellers — and no other bet­ter can­di­date springs to mind — then he’s pulled off a trick that evaded his fore­run­ner all his life. Baron Co­hen’s great­est comic cre­ations — the Staines-based gang­ster Ali G, the ap­palling Kazakh broad­caster Bo­rat Sagdiyev and the gay Aus­trian fash­ion­ista Bruno — we know in eye­crin­kling de­tail. (Have you seen the naked wrestling scene in Bo­rat?)

But the “me” be­hind them — Baron Co­hen him­self — is vir­tu­ally trans­par­ent. He’s 43 and mar­ried to the ac­tress Isla Fisher, whom he met in 2002. They have three chil­dren to­gether and a large house in the Hol­ly­wood Hills. That’s about it. Baron Co­hen al­most al­ways gives in­ter­views in char­ac­ter, but in a rare au na­turel en­counter, he spoke about Sellers as an in­spi­ra­tion. “I think I was seven when I saw the first In­spec­tor Clouseau film and I re­ally be­lieved the char­ac­ter,” he said some years ago. “He was this in­cred­i­bly re­al­is­tic ac­tor who was also hi­lar­i­ous and who man­aged to bridge the gap be­tween com­edy and sat

ire.” Both men were raised in Lon­don with sim­i­lar fam­ily back­grounds: Baron Co­hen’s par­ents are Jewish, as was Sellers’s moth- er. Their act­ing train­ing, rooted in tra­di­tions of vaude­ville and clown­ing, had much in com­mon too. Sellers’s par­ents both toured in va­ri­ety acts, and he spent his child­hood tour­ing with them, mim­ick­ing the char­ac­ters he met back­stage to amuse him­self dur­ing the fre­quent lonely longueurs. Baron Co­hen’s up­bring­ing was far more se­cure — he at­tended the Hab­er­dash­ers’ Aske’s Boys’ School, then read his­tory at Christ’s Col­lege, Cam­bridge — but later stud­ied clown­ing in Paris un­der the French mas­ter clown Philippe Gaulier.

Though Baron Co­hen’s char­ac­ters are all recog­nis­ably of the mod­ern world, they’re rooted in old French comic tra­di­tions of Ra­belaisian ex­cess and nerve-rack­ing bouf­fon­nerie. Crit­ics of­ten con­fuse this with par­ody: many Grimsby re­views mis­took Nobby for a crass swipe at ben­e­fits cheats. But like the French bouf­fons of old, his char­ac­ters are lu­di­crous ver­sions of his au­di­ence’s worst night­mares. They’re joy­ful tor­men­tors, and the joke’s ex­clu­sively on us.

They’re also close cousins of Sellers’s char­ac­ters on The Goon Show — which stretched rec- Grimsby; The Pink Pan­ther, og­nis­able English types, like the re­tired ma­jor (Den­nis Blood­nok) and the con­niv­ing so­phis­ti­cate (Her­cules Gryt­pype-Thynne), to pre­pos­ter­ous ex­tremes.

For both men, ver­sa­til­ity is part of the deal. Baron Co­hen in­vests ev­ery­thing in a char­ac­ter, then dumps them for­ever, while Sellers of­ten played mul­ti­ple roles within the same film — a trick he might have learned from Alec Guin­ness, the other great Bri­tish comic ac­tor of the post­war years.

Stan­ley Kubrick de­ployed that tal­ent to var­i­ously funny and ter­ri­fy­ing ef­fect in his 1964 Cold War satire Dr Strangelove, in which Sellers played not only the tit­u­lar Nazi sci­en­tist but also US pres­i­dent Merkin Muf­fley and RAF group cap­tain Lionel Man­drake.

Baron Co­hen has al­ready done Clouseau. His walk-on gen­darme in Martin Scors­ese’s Hugo (2011) was a broad riff on the de­tec­tive char­ac­ter Sellers por­trayed in five Pink Pan­ther films (plus a dis­grace­ful post­hu­mous sixth, patched to­gether from out­takes) of wildly vary­ing qual­ity. What he needs now is a Strangelove — a col­lab­o­ra­tion with a ma­jor film­maker who can aim him at new and un­ex­pected tar­gets.

Paul Thomas An­der­son, the di­rec­tor of Inherent Vice and There Will Be Blood, spoke in 2014 about his long­stand­ing de­sire to work with the Bri­tish ac­tor Toby Jones, an­other French­trained clown. Let’s pray it hap­pens, but a Strangelo­vian col­lab­o­ra­tion with Baron Co­hen could be even more ex­cit­ing. If a se­cond cold war breaks out (and the way things are go­ing, it might be as early as next week), count­less artists will try to make sense of it. But the equally vi­tal task of mak­ing non­sense of it? Well, that’s a rarer skill. And it’s where the Sellerses and Baron Co­hens of this world come in.

opens na­tion­ally on Thurs­day.

SELLERS COMES TO MIND WHEN WATCH­ING

Sacha Baron Co­hen in Peter Sellers in

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