Dirty jokes but a kosher comedian

Jewish satirist Sacha Baron Cohen has created his own Hollywood niche playing uppity Europeans and foul-mouthed Kazakh journalists.

talladega film 88 298 (photo credit: Sony Pictures)
talladega film 88 298
(photo credit: Sony Pictures)
In Talladega Nights, the current American box office topper, NASCAR idol Ricky Bobby is challenged for supremacy by French Formula One champ Jean Gerard. The two men meet and confront each other nose to nose, and the Frenchman, sure of victory, tells the macho American that he will drop out of the race, under one condition: "Eeef you keess me," says Gerard. Who would you cast as the Frenchiest of Frenchmen, a flamboyantly gay man who sips champagne and reads existentialist philosophers while going around the track at 180 miles per hour? Sacha Baron Cohen, of course, the comedian best known for his alter-egos Ali G, a lower class Jamaican Londoner, Borat, the Kazakh TV reporter, and Bruno, the gay Austrian fashion expert. For devotees of television's Da Ali G Show, Talladega Nights may be the first chance to see Baron Cohen as he actually looks, a slim, tall young man, who, in this case, sports the best French accent this side of Paris. He's pitted in the film against Will Ferrell as Ricky Bobby, a good ol' speed-drunk Southern boy. The two square off not only on the racetrack, but also for comic honors. It's a lip-to-lip competition between two very different comic improvisational styles, and on the track as on the laugh meter, it's a bumper-to-bumper race. Even the two men's cars reflect the competitors' nationalities, with Ferrell's car plastered with Wonderbread logos and Baron Cohen's promoting Perrier. For those effete urbanites and non-Americans not familiar with NASCAR (the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing), it's a phenomenon rapidly becoming America's premier spectator sport. The movie's title refers to the Talladega Superspeedway in Alabama, the site of the protagonists' epic face-off. Baron Cohen, who is so wrapped up in his faux characters that he hardly ever gives interviews as the London-born, well-educated Jewish lad that he is, says in the publicity notes that making the movie was a learning experience, "The first thing they made me do is to ride with a real NASCAR driver at about 180 miles an hour around the track," he said. "It was one of the most unpleasant experiences of my life." Baron Cohen also learned something about hospitality in the American South - and the popularity of gay Frenchmen - when the lead actors were introduced, as their film characters, to 200,000 screaming spectators at a real Talladega race. When Ricky Bobby and his American sidekick were presented, the crowd went wild. When it was the turn of Frenchman Jean Gerard, there was a deafening boo. "I wasn't surprised," said Baron Cohen. "It reminded me of the last time I went to Alabama, when I was playing a gay Austrian character for my show and was booed by 90,000 drunken men at the Alabama-Mississippi football game. The only way I got out alive was by switching clothes with the sound man." In real life, the 34-year-old Baron Cohen was born into an Orthodox Jewish family in London, the son of a menswear shop owner and an Israeli mother. He remains a religious, kosher-observant Jew. He studied history at Christ's College, Cambridge, showing real potential for an academic career, and wrote his thesis on Jewish involvement in the American civil rights movement. Coming up next is a movie with the snappy title Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan. Set for next year is Dinner for Schmucks, in which "an extraordinarily stupid man possesses the ability to ruin the life of anyone who spends more than a few minutes in his company." After that, it's Curly Oxide and Vic Thrill, in which our hero plays a young Hassidic Jew who forms a band with an aging rock and roller.