Tuesday, October 31, 2006
Every now and then, a movie comes along that changes the rules. "Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan" is one of those movies.
We might have seen it coming. Reality-based humor continually one-ups its predecessors with extreme approaches. The simple pranks of TV's long-running "Candid Camera" have finally morphed into the elaborate put-ons of "Punk'd," while the mind-free toilet humor of "Jackass Number Two" rakes in $70 million-plus at the box office.
But to limit "Borat" to this category alone-given its considerable shock factor- would be to miss the point.
Simply put, this movie is among the most subversive and utterly fearless satires of cultural values since "Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb," whose lengthy title it mimics.
British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen (who originated the character on HBO's "Da Ali G Show") plays Borat Sagdiyev, a sweetly enthusiastic journalist from Kazakhstan who shares his country's deeply rooted prejudices, like sexism and unreasonable fear of Jews.
Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan ****
Sacha Baron Cohen is Borat, an enthusiastic journalist from Kazakhstan who travels across America to make a documentary. The film continuously blurs the line between its fictional narrative-which features actors-and documentary-style sneak attacks on oblivious real people. A biting satire on prejudice and bigotry, it is the most fearless and funny comedy in years.
Along with his largely inept producer Azamat (Ken Davitian), Borat sets off across America to make a documentary. It's here that some take exception with the film, particularly its reflexivity as it continuously blurs the line between its fictional narrative- which features a script, actors, etc.-and documentary-style sneak attacks on oblivious real people.
It helps that most Americans aren't familiar with Kazakhstan , but whether or not the actual former Soviet republic is bigoted or backwards does not matter. (Except to the unamused Kazakh government, which recently took a 4-page ad out in the New York Times stating otherwise.) This is not a documentary about Kazakhstan. It is a satire of cultural ignorance that spares none. Borat approaches his interviewees with a big smile and hilariously mangled English that reveals the irony-when he proudly tells an American rodeo crowd that Kazaks support the U.S.'s "war of terror!"
Borat's naÃive sweetness is precisely what allows people to let their guard down. It is thrilling because we are in on the joke. It's embarrassing because most of us are unfortunately familiar these traits in everyday people. There are two things that make the laughs in the movie so brutal. First, because Borat is a bigot he makes it seem "okay," and the victims are unknowingly tricked into revealing their inner prejudices.
Second, there is no moment of levity at the end of the prank like the big release that a "Punk'd" victim gets where he realizes it was all a hoax. Borat's subjects never get the satisfaction of knowing it was a put-on (on camera, anyway).
Cohen's commitment to the character is scary, as he is always pushing to find people's limits. This guerrilla-style filmmaking means that the whole crew must remain in character. However ridiculous it seems, it sets a new standard for acting when Cohen 's improvisation leads him into dangerous situations. In "Borat," acting means maneuvering in character to get what you want out of people who aren't completely aware of the stakes. The combination of unexpected outcomes and truly uncomfortable situations make "Borat" an equally funny and cringe-worthy movie.
The Anti-Defamation League is worried that Borat's unhealthy anti-Semitism may be misunderstood by less "sophisticated" audiences. Making Borat such a likable bigot certainly raises questions, but because his fear of Jews is taken to a ridiculous level (he cries like a baby and cowers at the sight of a harmless old Jewish couple hosting him at a Bed & Breakfast), it illustrates just how much this kind of prejudice is rooted in the absurd.
The same goes for Borat's negativity towards homosexuality. It is a concept he doesn't completely understand, as evinced by the funniest scene in the film (which had me covering my eyes and laughing uncontrollably for at least five straight minutes, probably more!)
Yes, the hype on this one is big. As such, it will be a grand social experiment on opening weekend in the theaters. I am going again just to see what the audience laughs at and what they don't.
Will it be too uncomfortable?
Will they get it?
Will they ever side with Borat's victims?
Will people walk out?
The fact that this mercilessly funny film is based in reality makes a bigger statement about who we are as a country. How we react seeing it reflected back at us will be another experience entirely.