There’s no point in beating around the bush, so I’ll just get this out of the way up top: Borat made me laugh till I cried. I can’t promise I won’t get all thoughtful and interprety on you later in the review, but know this: Borat is soaringly hilarious and completely irresistible. I shuddered with tears of joy many times during the film’s brief 84 minutes, struggling to regain my composure in an effort to hear what was happening onscreen. In an era where ironic hipster detachment has all but taken over modern humor — think of how McSweeney’s aims for a smug nod of approval more than actual laughter — Borat offers the kind of skull-smashing guffaws that are all too rare in movies. For the nine of you who’ve been living in a cave on Mars with your fingers in your ears for the past few months, Borat is the comic creation of Sacha Baron Cohen, the British-born and Cambridge-educated actor and writer responsible for HBO’s short-lived “Da Ali G Show,” in which he assumed various alter egos and interviewed unsuspecting U.S. citizens. Among these was Borat Sagdiyev, a TV reporter from Kazakhstan with a hatred of Jews and ridiculously broken English. After flopping with the feature Ali G Indahouse a few years ago, Baron Cohen turned to the Borat character. The resulting faux-documentary, whose complete title is Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, is a stunning success, the kind of extreme satire that aims for the gut and skewers any and all that cross its path. It’s also, I should repeat, the funniest movie you’ll see all year.
The film’s brief prologue features Borat showing off his village to the camera crew, including his prostitute sister, with whom Borat shares a firm open-mouthed kiss. Much has been made recently of Baron Cohen’s relentless mocking of Kazakhstan, but politics has nothing to do with it: The fact is that most people couldn’t find Kazakhstan on a map. It’s the perfect place for Borat to call home because, while viewers will likely know Baron Cohen is only joking when we see a cow living in Borat’s house or a car being pulled by a horse, there’s just enough alienness in our perceptions of that part of the world for the jokes to have an uneasy smell of half-truth, as if things really might have been that bad there just a few years ago.
Borat’s government dispatches him to the United States to make a documentary about what he finds there, which is all the impetus needed to get the story going: Soon enough, Borat and his producer, Azamat (Ken Davitian), have landed in New York City, and the film is off and running. Some of the footage is captured on hidden cameras, like the moment on the subway when Borat drops his suitcase and accidentally releases a chicken. These are the best parts of the film, and stand in marked contrast to the plotted scenes that director Larry Charles (“Seinfeld,” “Curb Your Enthusiasm”) inevitably has to use to shape the flimsy narrative. There are no fewer than four screenwriters credited: Baron Cohen, Anthony Hines, Peter Baynham, and Dan Mazer, three of whom also are given story credits along with Todd Phillips (Old School), the film’s original director, who dropped out early in production. All that creative muscle has produced a remarkably thin narrative, but it’s not for lack of talent. Rather, the problem is assuming that a film like this would even need a strong, driving storyline. The glory of the Borat skits from Baron Cohen’s TV work was their willful lack of existential examination: For better of worse, they just simply were. Watching Azamat groom Borat for an interview is funny enough, but without the unwitting participation of an interview subject, the scenes lack the punch of the rest of the film. Borat is at its best when it’s just Borat.
That plot, such as it is, involves Borat’s sudden desire to flee New York for California, allowing for a memorable road trip across the country. Baron Cohen is gifted enough to carry the film through the stitched-together interviews and set pieces in which Borat learns to drive, buys a car, and spends time with various groups and clubs as he journeys across the American South. The reactions he elicits from some of the interviewees are priceless: When Borat asks a car salesman what kind of vehicle would attract a woman who is “shaved,” the dealer doesn’t miss a beat before responding, “Well, that would be a Corvette.” Mining such gold nuggets for all they’re worth, Baron Cohen pushes the envelope in every situation, inducing cringes and gasps as he violates pretty much every rule of what is considered polite society. I’m being purposefully vague here, and not just because there’s simply too much in the film to recap, but because I don’t want to spoil anything. Besides, transcribed to paper, most of the jokes look too flat and simple to work; it’s only on the screen that Baron Cohen hammers them home.
This is not to say that the entire film is some extended exercise in exploring the inherent prejudices that a lot of Americans seem to have; this is, after all, a comedy, and Baron Cohen is determined to get just as many miles out of poop jokes as he is a thought-provoking exchange about the role of U.S. minorities. But the physical gross-outs — particularly the jaw-dropping scene in which Borat and Azamat wrestle naked — aren’t signs of two different Borats, but two halves of the same whole. The intellectual comic and the physical jackass are the same guy, and it works for Baron Cohen: The startlingly open moments of emotional honesty seem to have more effect once your guard’s been lowered by his peculiar brand of slapstick. Baron Cohen fully inhabits the character of Borat, riffing on anything and everything. His funniest lines are the ones that play up the character as a superstitious dolt, as when he sees a Barbie doll at a garage sale and asks the proprietor, “Who is this woman you have shrunk?” He gets away with it all because Southerners pride themselves on politeness, and watching them square off against such a boor is exquisitely uncomfortable.
The screening I attended was packed, which is unusual for a matinee, though maybe not so strange for Hollywood, where there are plenty of young, unemployed actors with nothing better to do than go to the movies. But I think it’s more than that. The full house lapped up the comedy, but not because Baron Cohen is simply the flavor of the month. Rather, he got that way by offering a harsh brand of subversive comedy that’s so offensive, that so cuts to the core of our darkest prejudices, that most people don’t even try it. Borat’s anti-Semitism is an outrageous caricature that, by its very extremity, points out the absurdity of only slightly milder actual anti-Semitism.
As amazing as the movie is, Borat is clearly a one-way ticket for Baron Cohen. “Borat” used to be a below-the-radar codeword for a small group of people familiar with the comedian’s work, but the film’s scope and exposure have surely put an end to that. But it’s clear from his commitment to the role that Baron Cohen knew all that going in, and was determined to go out in a brilliant blaze of glory. It worked.
Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a low-level employee at a Hollywood industry magazine. You can visit his blog, Slowly Going Bald.I Laughed Till I Cried. You Will, Too.
Film | November 4, 2006 | Comments ()