Movies We Like
On paper Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan could be considered nothing more than a bold stunt, but in actuality it’s one of the more subversive and gutsy “mainstream” films of recent years and one of the funniest. Borat was one of the three alter egos that actor Sacha Baron Cohen played on his television program, Da Ali G Show (first in England and then for HBO). Cohen would slip into these extremely absurd characters and interact with real people, unaware that they were being put on. Like the old show Candid Camera, half the comedy comes from people’s reactions to the often crude character's comments, but the best laughs come from the intense commitment that Baron Cohen gives these characters. Borat may say inane things, but the intelligence creating what he says is at the highest level.
Like the show, the movie Borat uses a lot of real people and improvised situations. But to fill it out, some actors and a cast have been added, and it works. Part of the fun is trying to figure out what’s real and what was staged. Borat is a clueless, almost sweetly innocent yet completely misogynistic, homophobic, and anti-Semitic Kazakhstan reporter. The film begins as a mockumentary as he leaves his third-world village for some reporting in New York with his rotund producer Azamat (American actor, Ken Davitian). In New York he interviews some saps on American customs, and engages in some classic “fish outta water” comedy (he thinks the hotel’s elevator is his actual room). Eventually, after seeing an episode of Baywatch, he becomes obsessed with Pamela Anderson and the two set out for California so Borat can bag her as his new wife.
On the way Borat wreaks havoc on a local television’s weather report, visits a rodeo where he sings the Kazakhstan nation anthem and praises George Bush’s “War Of Terror.” Later he brings a prostitute (Luenell) to a Southern dinner party (and also takes a dump in a bag and shares it with his host). Eventually Borat and Azamat get into an epic nude wrestling match that spills into a full hotel conference room. This leads to a break up and Borat must finish his trip alone.
Baron Cohen first ventured into theaters as his Ali G character in Ali G Indahouse (though it went straight to DVD or VHS in the states). The film had some inspired moments but for the most part, the over plotting felt lazy and it didn’t work. After Borat, Baron Cohen did a film with his third character Bruno, which followed on the same path as Borat, mixing staged segments with gullible people, again some funny bits, but for the most part it just felt icky. What makes Borat work so well is that as discourteous as it is, there is still something lovable and even charming about Borat. While his relentless hostility to Judaism is provocative it also shockingly shines a light on how people react to his comments (usually by ignoring or, worse, agreeing and joining in). It’s usually mentioned at this point that Baron Cohen himself is Jewish, so in the unwritten world of comedy and offensiveness he is granted permission to make fun, and he takes that permission and runs a mile with it.
Many lawsuits came from the “victims” of Baron Cohen’s prank. But whether it’s the gun dealer who helps Borat pick out a gun for Jew shooting, or the drunken frat boys whose racist and sexist comments will live on forever, Borat has shined a light on what many Americans really feel and those who are eager to share their pathetic opinions, thinking it will only be viewed in Kazakhstan.
Baron Cohen's performance is pretty astounding. He burrows in deep and never lets his character slip. Even while facing extreme hostility from others, he never seems to break and call a time out. Because of the accents and the full physical commitment the comparisons to another British comic chameleon, Peter Sellers, are apt. Veteran TV helmer Larry Charles (Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm) directed Borat - though guided is more like it as so much was improvised - and he also directed Bruno and Bill Maher’s Religulous. While Baron Cohen has become a much in demand comic actor, only time will reveal if the simple genius of Borat will ever be matched again. In the meantime for me it will rank as one of the times I’ve laughed the hardest in my life, no matter how cringe inducing.
Borat was nominated for an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay.