In 2012, I was invited to participate in Sight & Sound magazine’s “greatest films of all time” poll. For a film critic, that’s an awesome honor — and an even greater responsibility — and for some reason I’ll never fully understand, I second-guessed my choices at the last minute, withholding my all-time favorite movie (“Fargo”) and submitting “Borat” in its place. In my defense, Sight & Sound voters always stick to the canon with this poll, since the titles with the most votes win, whereas I sincerely believe that “Borat” is the most revolutionary movie of the last decade, an anarchic social critique for the post-reality-TV era, featuring radical comedy techniques pioneered by “Seinfeld” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm” director Larry Charles.
I have chosen this space to own up to my mistake (I’ll admit, however genius I still consider “Borat” to be, it ain’t one of the 10 greatest films of all time) because Charles has since moved on from his fruitful, if diminishing-returns relationship with merry prankster Sacha Baron Cohen (that subsequently yielded the turkeys “Brüno” and “The Dictator”) to attempt a wild-and-crazy satire with … wait for it … Nicolas Cage, and the result is a debacle. A week and a half ahead of its not-quite-straight-to-DVD release, the movie, “Army of One,” opens on a select few screens, where it will likely play to an audience of none.
This terribly misconceived and strangely miscast comedy finds Cage tumbling farther into the well of his own bug-eyed eccentricity, a hole dug plenty deep by such roles as “Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call” and its spirit sequel “Dog Eat Dog” (out later this month), not to mention a handful of live-wire action-hero roles in Jerry Bruckheimer movies, the massive box office success of which are directly responsible for his ongoing bankability in such abominations as “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” and “Season of the Witch.” An actor like Tim Blake Nelson might have been a better choice to play Gary Faulkner — a 50-year-old construction worker from Greeley, Co., who traveled to Pakistan on a mission from God to kill Osama bin Laden — but then, Nelson didn’t star in “The Rock” and “Con Air,” and therefore isn’t a big enough name to get a movie like this greenlit.
Inspired by a GQ profile of Faulkner by Chris Heath, “Army of One” mocks the blue-collar lunacy of someone who, frustrated that the U.S. government had been unable to capture bin Laden, took matters into his own hands. Granted, it’s a hilarious story: At first, not quite bothering to investigate Pakistan’s position on a map, Faulkner thought he could get there from San Diego by boat. Later, he tried hang gliding. When he finally booked a flight, the airline frowned upon his decision to travel with the $300 samurai sword he intended to use for the deed. These and dozens of other details are incredibly funny, which is why it’s such a shame that there are so few laughs to be found in the retelling.
That’s largely because Cage has become something of a meta-joke. In the years since “Raising Arizona,” his performances have become so arch, so wildly over-the-top, that there’s practically no reality to compare them against. That made him perfect casting for a post-modern deconstruction such as “Adaptation,” in which he played hypothetical versions of screenwriter Charlie Kaufman and his nonexistent twin brother. But it means that even when playing a real-life character, such as Faulkner (who really does speak in the nasal, motormouth voice Cage affects for the role), we’re constantly aware that this is a Nicolas Cage performance. It’s parody, like Alec Baldwin’s extreme Donald Trump impersonation for “Saturday Night Live,” rather than a representation we could take seriously even for a split second. When the character brags to his drinking buddies, “Hollywood called, and they want to make a movie about the G, and they said, ‘Who do you want to play you, Clint Eastwood or Dan Aykroyd?’ … Don’t you think I look a little like Nic Cage in ‘Con Air’?” it’s one wink too many.
Add to this the decision to validate Faulkner’s delusions by making God an actual character and, in a decision as painful as it sounds, casting Russell Brand as the deity — who should not be mistaken for some blasphemous idea of the actual God, but rather whatever wonky idea of the higher power a pothead like Gary Faulkner might believe in. Gary sees God (or hears Brand’s voice) in the form of random strangers, an Islamabad truck driver, even his dialysis nurse. When Gary finally does make it to Pakistan, his interactions — some of them of them possibly of the unscripted variety that director Charles pioneered with Cohen — feel like the inverse of what made “Borat” so effective: Instead of watching an outrageous foreigner reveal awkwardly P.C. Americans struggling to accept unfamiliar customs, “Army of One” imposes American ignorance on others.
Like Borat, Gary is completely oblivious to the customs of country he visits, which doesn’t stop him from wielding his samurai sword in public spaces or upsetting fruit carts as he races a moped through a crowded bazaar. And yet, there is something about Faulkner’s story that serves as a valuable reminder of that long stretch during which Americans (residents of a mostly-Christian country whose slow attitudinal shift from forgiveness to vengeance has been stoked by years of Nicolas Cage-style action movies, in which the bad guy must be dispatched in the most spectacular way possible) saw their bloodthirst unrequited. Even after SEAL Team Six captures and kills bin Laden, Faulkner refuses to believe the news, and though his disappointment is the closest Cage comes to humanizing the character, the movie doesn’t know how to end. When Charles finally shows the real Gary Faulkner in news clips over the credits, it’s clear that a straightforward documentary would have surely made a much more amusing film.