Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Borat (movie review)

Despite what’s revealed in Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, the painfully funny and patently offensive mock documentary from British comic chameleon Sacha Baron Cohen, there are actually two Kazakhstans on planet Earth.

The first one, the place created by the fertile creative mind of Cohen, mastermind of television’s “Da Ali G Show” and a co-star of Talladega Nights, is an inherently backwards Eastern European country where siblings habitually mate, consensual sex is a rarity, wine is made from horse pee, a horse-pulled junk car represents the height of luxury and the nation annually rallies around a beloved, costumed ritual – “the running of the Jew.”

The second Kazahkstan, the real one in Eastern Europe, reportedly the ninth-largest country on the globe, for a few embarrassing days actually went ballistic over the skewed view of Kazahstan presented by Cohen. That’s before someone in charge thought better of responding seriously to an inspired piece of performance art/surrealistic fantasy so clearly intended to provoke and, mostly, entertain. The yolk was on the Kazakhs, it seemed.

And, lucky for us, the joke is on practically everyone who encounters the faux journalist in Borat, an $18 million project purposely designed to look like some sort of scratch-marked, low-budget educational missive presented by the “Kazahkstan Ministry of Information.” It’s a rude, crude riot with a mission, of sorts, as the filmmaker’s antics serve to expose the biases and prejudices found just beneath the surface of American life (not that Europe doesn’t have difficulties in that department; heard of the Paris riots and Muslim unrest in London?).

Borat, the character, in some respects is a descendant of Alex, the Ukraine tour guide in Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel Everything is Illuminated and the movie of the same name, as well as the “wild and crazy” Czech brothers (Steve Martin and Dan Aykroyd) on vintage “SNL” and even Inspector Clouseau (Peter Sellers) in the Pink Panther movies; all are quirky foreigners whose charm owes, in part, to their incomplete grasp of the English language and a screwy representation of social manners and mores in their respective native countries. Big difference between those comic predecessors and the new guy: Borat is eminently unlikable, a boorish fellow without a clue – or, maybe, simply without out any concern – about the impact of his loutish behavior on everyone he meets. Again, that’s a bonus for viewers.

“This is Natasha,” the lanky, ever-smiling Borat says, planting a lascivious kiss on a young blond woman in the opening minutes of the movie. “She’s my sister, the fourth best prostitute in all of country.” Borat, identifying himself as the sixth most-famous journalist in his country, proceeds to offer quick snapshots of his country (actually, Romania), proudly introducing his wife and his beloved VCR before departing for “the U.S. and A.” There, with the help of his overweight producer Azamat Bagatov (Ken Davitian), he plans to pursue “reportings” on American culture.

Not long after he terrorizes New York City pedestrians by attempting to kiss the cheeks of strangers and openly pleasures himself in front of a Victoria’s Secret store (the reaction shots are priceless), Borat’s mission is revised. His new goal in life is to meet Pamela Anderson, so that he can “make sexytime” with the curvaceous blonde star of “Baywatch.”

Borat thus becomes a full-fledged road movie, with the troublemaker raising eyebrows and ire all across the country. The film takes on an episodic structure, with some segments riotous and others meriting mere chuckles. Despite the producers’ alleged securing of signed release forms, the majority of the bystanders scandalized by Cohen’s antics couldn’t possibly have grasped the full extent of the mockery afoot before cameras started rolling. What else could explain the participation of conservative politicos Alan Keyes and Bob Barr?

A sequence at a Virginia rodeo is among the funniest in a movie that’s more laugh-worthy than anything this side of television’s “The Office.” Borat tells the audience of his support for the U.S.’s “war of terror” before expressing his desire that George Bush “drink the blood of every man, woman and child in Iraq”; he then sings a bizarrely rewritten version of the national anthem before being booed out of the place.

In the spirit of the movie’s bent for rankings, the award for the second-most-hilarious sequence probably goes to the would-be genteel, Southern-fried dinner party in Atlanta (I think), where Borat cheerfully heaps abuse – disguised as cultural misunderstanding – at his hosts and brings along an overweight African-American hooker as his guest.

And about that nude male slapstick wrestling match, the one that’s rather revolting despite the presence of comically huge censor bars? Call it third place.

(It should be noted here that the Cambridge-educated Cohen is Jewish. There's a fine line between bigotry, and making fun of bigotry. Does Cohen cross it? Is it merely in the eye of the beholder? I'm not sure, but I do know that, as a non-Jew, I did feel uncomfortable with some of Cohen's Jewish "jokes" in the same way that I feel uncomfortable when African-Americans use the "N" word)

For more reviews of Borat, go here.


H. Lewis Smith said...

I can understand your discomfort when African Americans greet each other with the n-word. As an African American I too am just as equally uncomfortable which is why the following site is up:


Philip Booth said...

Mr. Smith:
Thanks for reading and commenting.
I'll check out your site.