A recent issue of Entertainment Weekly had a picture of Borat on the cover, along with a headline that read: “Did this man make the funniest movie ever?” That’s a question I’m not prepared to answer but I will say that, in my opinion, Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan is one of the funniest movies ever made.
I’ve long been a fan of HBO’s “Da Ali G Show,” where I was first introduced to Borat. For those of you unfamiliar with him, Borat is a character portrayed by comedian Sacha Baron Cohen (who played Will Ferrell’s French nemesis in last summer’s Talladega Nights). Allegedly a journalist from Kazakhstan filing reports about the American way of life, he interviews real, unsuspecting people and often gets them to reveal their hidden prejudices by stating his own. Yes, Borat is a chauvinist, a bigot, and an anti-Semitic (although Baron Cohen himself is Jewish). Despite this, he comes across as clueless or, more often, the byproduct of a massive culture clash.
The movie begins with Borat back in his tiny, rundown village. After introducing us to the locals, including his sister who is “#4 prostitute in all of Kazakhstan,” Borat heads off for the United States. His job is to film a documentary about American culture for broadcast on television back home. After a disastrous entry into New York – where he accidentally unleashes a hen in a subway car – Borat retires to his hotel room. Seeing an old “Baywatch” rerun on TV, he becomes obsessed with Pamela Anderson and vows to make his way to California where he can “make sexytime” with her.
This is one of the few parts of the film that is scripted. The rest plays out like a series of his reports as he journeys cross-country. Borat takes driving lessons, learns to talk hip-hop from some Atlanta teens, and takes a course in American humor. Those are the mild sections of the film. The more outrageous parts have Borat mangling the national anthem in front of a rodeo stadium full of rednecks (sorry, no better term) and bringing a prostitute to a high society dinner. The humor comes from the fact that he’s interacting with real people, who have no idea that they are dealing with a comedian; they all believe that Borat is what he says he is. Their responses to him are authentic. Just look at the scene where Borat meets with Georgia Representative Bob Barr. I won’t tell you what he puts Barr through, but the politician’s aghast reaction is priceless.
The genius of Borat is that most Americans (myself included) know very little about Kazakhstan, even though it’s the ninth largest country in the world, size-wise. The place seems so foreign – and it plays so well off our Soviet republic stereotypes – that it’s all too easy for people to believe that its citizens really do drink fermented horse urine and engage in sexual assault for fun.
It only makes things funnier that Sacha Baron Cohen never breaks character. Not once. He gets people to say the most insane things, yet never cracks a smile, never drops the act. He plays Borat as a guy who is hopelessly naïve, and that elicits a certain type of behavior from his victims. Some are tolerant and patient, others are…not. Oscar has been notoriously stingy toward comedies, but I really hope that changes this year. Baron Cohen gives one of the great, landmark comic performances and deserves to be nominated as Best Actor. The man is fearless. Whether he’s telling a feminist group that women have smaller brains (and keeping a straight face) or engaging in a hilariously disgusting naked wrestling match with Borat’s overweight producer, Baron Cohen shows a complete commitment that rivals the late, great Andy Kaufman.
Borat is one of those movies that literally made my face sore from 84 minutes of continual laughing. However, it is more than a series of outlandish and raunchy bits. The point of the character has always been to expose prejudice and hypocrisy. During his travels, Borat manages, with shockingly little effort, to get some of his new acquaintances to suggest that all people of Mid-Eastern descent are terrorists and that homosexuals should be hanged. In one of the most gasp-inducing segments, his ramblings prompt an RV full of drunken frat boys to state that America would be a better place if you could still own slaves.
Provocative? You bet. This is also social satire at its finest. By using humor to draw out prejudices, Baron Cohen (a former anti-racist activist) masterfully lays bare how silly and simple-minded bigotry is. The people in this movie who say homophobic, racist, or anti-Semitic things are made to look like the damn fools they are. I think humor definitely has a place in the ongoing fight for civil rights. This movie kind of proves that. Perhaps by laughing at the ignorance that underlies bigotry we can help eradicate it a little bit.
That said, I don’t want to make it seem like the film is preachy. Quite the opposite. Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan is a full-throttle comedy experience. You don’t just laugh at it; you howl, often uncontrollably. I can’t remember the last time a movie so completely made me go insane with laughter. What can you say about a film that satirizes multiple elements of American society and whose end titles feature a credit that reads “Mr. Baron Cohen’s Feces Provided by Jason Alper?” One word comes to mind: genius.
( out of four)
Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan is rated R for pervasive strong crude and sexual content including graphic nudity, and language. The running time is 1 hour and 24 minutes.
To learn more about Borat, check out AskMen.com: Borat
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