Borat: Cultural Learnings of America….
directed by Larry Charles
starring Sacha Baron Cohen
Twentieth Century Fox
I winced as I was driving down the road the other day, listening to one of Don Rickles’ old Vegas stand-up routines. I can’t imagine the comedian still roasts the same subjects — Jews, blacks, Mexicans, women — as pointedly as he did 40 years ago. Politically incorrect humor is a much tougher sell to a mainstream audience nowadays. One must have a fresh approach, a different context, a means of disarming the audience before lowering the boom.
One must have a Borat.
Acclaimed British actor Sacha Baron Cohen’s foreign, astoundingly naive and sexually uninhibited alter ego is proving to be one of comedy’s all-time satirical devices. Borat Sagdiyev, one of Baron Cohen’s characters from his HBO specials, Da Ali G Show, has become a household name, and has saturated the media like a big, wet, lovable blanket. His latest escapade, doing an apparently uninvited jig onstage during Beck’s performance on the David Letterman Show (putting a smile on the singer’s face), was just a tiny taste of the free publicity Cohen’s new movie has received.
The film hardly needs free publicity, however. Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (heretofore known as “the Borat movie”) is the funniest film ever produced, hands down. Imagine Andy Kaufman commandeering a series of Candid Camera sketches, or a young Peter Sellers competing on TV’s The Amazing Race, providing subtle social commentary along the way. Then amplify the hilarity factor by say, ten times.
Baron Cohen’s unscripted masterpiece is a relentlessly paced, seamlessly sewn work of guerrilla-style comedy, prompting near-continuous laughter. During last week’s screening, I was laughing so hard for so long, I began seeing spots in front of my eyes from the lack of oxygen. After the end credits rolled, I spotted a few moviegoers shuffling out with their coats clasped before them, possibly hiding peed pants in the same fashion as an arrested celebrity would conceal handcuffed wrists.
Baron Cohen’s bona fides as a comedic genius are established within seconds of the film’s opening, when we’re introduced to fictional Borat’s fictional village in Kazakhstan, a collection of hovels with no running water. Its inhabitants are publicly acknowledged for their contributions — Borat’s neighbor is the village rapist, his sister remains the region’s most accomplished prostitute. Borat is a TV reporter. In his homeland, marriage often occurs before puberty; a good wife must have a strong back, and be adept with a plow.
As the people of Kazakhstan’s extremely limited knowledge of American culture was gleaned sometime in the early 1980s, Borat is assigned to film an educational documentary in New York City.
With his humble upbringing, Borat is expectedly a fish out of water in the Big Apple; we soon learn that masturbating and defecating in public comes naturally to the journalist. His attempts to greet commuters on a busy subway with Kazakh-style kisses are not received kindly. The scene threatens to turn dangerous; fortuitously, a previously silent chicken escapes from Borat’s luggage, causing utter chaos.
I should mention that the Borat movie is essentially a reality TV show brought to the big screen. A foreign journalist with a film crew is the perfect hoax; Cohen never steps out of character, and is completely believable — to the real-life subjects he interacts with on-screen, and to the movie’s audience, as well.
After catching a rerun of Baywatch one night in his hotel room, Borat becomes obsessed with Pamela Anderson of California. He convinces his sidekick/producer Azamat (Ken Davitian) to ditch the New York concept, and the pair set off for Hollywood in an old ice cream truck. Riding shotgun is a semi-tame circus bear, recruited for protection against gypsies and Jews.
Thus begins a cinematic travelogue of epically hilarious proportions, as the pair become lost in America’s cultural jungle. The film never lags (or even lets the audience catch their breaths) as we discover that Americans’ attitudes, prejudices and beliefs are often just as bizarre and ignorant as Borat’s.
Hmmm. Could this be what Baron Cohen was aiming for all along?
People will say the darnedest things on camera, especially if they’re drunk and/or stupid. In one scene, a redneck advises Borat to shave off his mustache so he won’t be mistaken for a terrorist; in another, highly intoxicated Southern frat boys lament the outlawing of slavery. Again, these are real folks who believe they’re being interviewed by a foreign journalist for an educational program.
Interestingly enough, the preview audience’s roar was reduced to a smattering of chuckles when a destitute, desperate Borat stumbled into a Sunday morning service. The chuckles became mere titters as a prominent judge declared from the pulpit that America will always be a Christian nation; soon, Borat is shoulder-to-shoulder with a U.S. Congressman speaking in tongues, surrounded by a congregation in the throes of self-induced hysteria.
Apparently, Jews are still fair game, while Jesus’ followers are not.
Perhaps the most hilarious aspect of the Borat movie is the means in which Baron Cohen (who played Will Ferrell’s fruity rival in Talladega Nights) successfully performs an end-run around the public’s potential for outrage. No advance review — even one peppered with spoilers — could convey just how offensive the Borat movie is. I suspect that a great number of unsuspecting moviegoers on opening weekend will be dumbstruck.
However, they’ll be laughing too hard to realize that, by laughing, they’ve become complicit in Baron Cohen’s envelope-pushing antics. Indeed, watching two naked men angrily wrestle on a bed, attempting to smother one another with their genitalia, would not ordinarily be considered humor at its finest.
Ultimately, the joke is not on Eastern Europeans, homosexuals, liberals, conservatives, feminists, nationalists, Jesus freaks, Jews or jackasses — it’s on all of us. But the Borat movie is so damn funny, we won’t care.
The Borat movie: www.boratmovie.com