Wednesday, November 15, 2006

In Theaters: Borat: Cultural Learnings of America Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan

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It's difficult to review a film like BORAT. It is almost, but not quite, a documentary, blending the fictional adventures of its comically awkward protagonist with reactions from real-life persons who are now starting in droves to regret their signing release forms. The ethical debate aside (and I do not have nearly enough information to weigh in on that), BORAT is a very funny movie with just a bit of brain, and it becomes difficult to expound on this for a number of reasons. I don't want to give away the best jokes, I don't want to get over-intellectual, I don't want to sell the film short, and I DO want to have a decent-sized review at the end of it all. I really need to reconsider my policy of reviewing every film I see in a theater.

So, Borat Sagdiyev (Sacha Baron Cohen) is a big-name journalist in Kazakhstan (or rather a distorted caricature of Kazakhstan as any given post-Soviet republic), sent to America to learn more about its culture and hopefully bring back valuable lessons in how to be prosperous and dominant. Arriving in New York with his crew, his clothes and a chicken, he marvels at the sights and sounds of the city before fixating on what America really has to offer- Pamela Anderson, as seen as CJ Parker on BAYWATCH. Wanting to meet this vision of American beauty, Borat convinces his producer Azamat (Ken Davitian) to take their documentary on the road, all the way to Los Angeles, California. And so the film becomes Borat's heroic journey across America (mostly the southern regions) to explore US cultural traditions and maybe find true love.

It goes without saying (but I'm going to say it anyway) that the whole point of this movie is the culture gap. Borat pits his made-up barbaric customs against the expectations of various people, testing their patience and tolerance and maybe bringing out a little of their personal feelings as well. (More than they intended to show at times, hence the lawsuits.) Bigotry comes up a lot; Borat, like many "Kazakhs" (remember, not the real ones) fosters a particularly antiquated and superstitious brand of anti-Semitism, one which casts Jews as supernatural creatures capable of changing shape, something which becomes significant when he and Azamat stay at a bed & breakfast run by a Jewish couple. His country executes homosexuals, but has no problem mingling with a Gay Pride parade and even inviting a few participants up to his room until he's informed what actually happened the next day by professional also-ran Alan Keyes. While Borat acts like a prejudiced, backwards ass (albeit a friendly one), he exposes prejudice in some of the people whom he interviews.

But is it funny? My answer would be yes. It's mostly "shock" humor, revolving around the sexual and scatological, but it's well-timed and well-executed shock humor. The editing is particularly sharp- we usually cut away before the awkwardness of any one gag moves from "funny" to "overbearing", and a sequence where a nude fight between Borat and Azamat spills out of their hotel room and into the halls (complete with an uncomfortable pause on the elevator) shows some ingenious comic timing, the hilarity overwhelming the unpleasant visual. And there are bits that are just plain silly-funny, like the Kazakhstan national anthem and Borat's purchase of a bear for protection.

The character Cohen has created (originally a correspondent on the comedian's DA ALI G SHOW), though somewhat predictable, has a certain charm; his prejudices come off as mostly-forgivable ignorance, the product of a backwards culture, while his fairy tale idealism turns his ramble into a touching quest. The satire wouldn't work if we didn't have a solid thread to follow or a reason to be interested in what happens next, and on second glance the film isn't as cynical as it appears. The film suggests that there are more people in America who harbor prejudice than we expect, but also suggests that people in America can be better than we expect as well, and in a couple of cases prejudice and generosity are found in the same person. In some ways this is the film that Paul Haggis' CRASH wanted to be.

BORAT is a cutting film, but also a heartwarming one, and if it appears to blunder into insight more than craft it, that may be the case, or it may just appear that way, and I'm not sure it matters either way. Good genuine satire is rare in mainstream cinema, and this film is worth seeing on that basis alone. The exact proportion of how much it makes you laugh against how much it makes you think will vary from person to person; however, it's sure to provoke in some way or another.

Story by Sacha Baron Cohen, Peter Baynham, Anthony Hines, & Todd Phillips
Written by Sacha Baron Cohen, Anthony Hines, Peter Baynham, & Dan Mazer
Directed by Larry Charles

Grade: A-


Anonymous said...

'Borat' was the worst film I've ever seen!!! Seriously. I have a great sense of humor, but this movie simply crossed the line.

Wasted $8 to watch my country and my gender totally disrespected. The constant onslaught of bathroom antics, references to masterbation and perverted sexual humor was downright nauseating.

All the crassness is now being excused because Sacha Baron Cohen was supposedly "making a deep statement about society"? If Sacha had some deep socio-political message, it could have been wrapped in a more intelligent package.
Any 6th grader with a dirty mind could have made this film.

Perhaps Sacha's biggest statement of all is to make a totally crappy movie, disrespecting several ethnic groups and Americans nominate it for an Academy Award.

Jokes on us, folks.

Evan Waters said...

And which country and gender would that be? Everyone got a bit of a pounding as I recall.

And to quote Roger Ebert, nobody ever said art had to be in good taste.