Hello, great nation of Ohio!
Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, both the funniest and most appalling film you'll see all year, concludes with a naked wrestling match. (Please. Wait. I reveal nothing away, American swine pigs!) It ends with Borat Sagdiyev (the British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen), who is tall, thin, badly mustached, tumbling in much naked fashion with a heavily fat man (Ken Davitian), who is better goateed though extremely flab-laden - much like Jabba of the Hutt from Big Wars in Space.
I see here in the press notes (provided by very favorable propaganda conglomerate Twentieth Century Fox) only three people are listed as actors, and fourth billing goes to Alex Daniels, who makes the previously remarked upon glorious nude fight scene. He is this moving picture's certified "Naked Fight Coordinator." He ensures naked scene starts in hotel room, moves to hallway, enters elevator, then hotel lobby, and finally conference room where (actual) insurance-seminar participants are eating a chicken dinner, participating in insurance seminar excitement.
Also listed in the credits: bear trainers, bears, kidnapping experts, and "Mr. Baron Cohen's feces provided by Jason Alpert."
I cause no offense, yes?
Perfectomundo, as your great Fonzie-man Winkler once said. So let us be continued now. Let us make sexy time, dear reader.
As hyped as Borat has been, for once it can be said: Believe the hype. You need to see it to fully appreciate the spectacle - like toilets overflowing on the set of Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood.
Borat tells the simple story of "the sixth most famous man in Kazakhstan," though that scene I just described - it's probably the least provocative I can describe. This is a movie that digs under your skin, makes you feel complicit. Which is exactly what it has in mind. If Peter Sellers' signature routine as an inept bungler (who means well) survived into the age of reality programming, it might have looked something like Baron Cohen's character. Borat is a guy fantastically unaware of how people react to him. Those people (and this is the genius) are real Ameri-cans unaware they are in Borat.
Well, they know now.
In other words, directed by Larry Charles (who wrote a handful of the best episodes of Seinfeld, but has a spottier history as a filmmaker, the impenetrable Bob Dylan vehicle Masked and Anonymous being the dubious highlight until now), Borat is about a fake Kazakh TV reporter who travels America and intrudes on actual people. It'd be a cheap gimmick if the film didn't offer insight to the human condition, and insufferably snobbish toward its victims if Baron Cohen and Charles didn't make room for empathy.
But they do.
Sometimes their subjects are generous and remain remarkably charming in the face of the mounting absurdity that is Borat. Sometimes they are nice but Borat's obliviousness to tact and civilized etiquette shatters their composure and a nasty streak emerges and reveals an underlying xenophobia ("We don't do that here in America"). And sometimes these people are ignoramuses who react to Borat's misogyny and anti-Semitism and innocent disposition (a deft act; for starters, Baron Cohen is a Cambridge, England-educated Jew) as a chance to join the club.
What's the precedent here?
The character comes from Da Ali G Show, a British sensation that aired briefly in this country on HBO (until it became too famous to fool anyone, basically). As Ali G, his similarly oblivious Brit gangsta rapper, Baron Cohen gave a commencement speech two years ago at Harvard in which he compared himself to great civil rights pioneer "Martin Luther Vandross," then complained the university would not pay for the cable porn in his hotel room ("And me was actually trying to save Harvard money by buying the 24-hour 'slutfest' package at $19.99"). He offended a few folks. Borat is sunnier. He is more palpable - inappropriate without a clue what inappropriate means.
But Baron Cohen is not above the scatological; as poop jokes go, he's innovative (however I'd rather not explain why or how). Baron Cohen is also no stranger to slob comedy; his French auto racer, with a habit of standing a little too close, was a highlight of last summer's Talladega Nights.
The roots of Borat, though, lie closer to Candid Camera; to the top-this shock comedies of John Waters; and Steve Martin's Bowfinger - about a producer who tries to shoot a movie around an actor he can't hire. Of course, filmmakers have made dramas with nonactors before; it's one of the founding principles of neo-realism. But shooting a comedy around people who never suspect it, a morally complicated movie about prejudice - that requires chutzpah.
Is it funny, for instance, when Borat walks into a gun shop and asks the man behind the counter what is the best gun to kill a Jew with and the salesman calmly reaches for a number of suggestions? It is funny. And horrifying. You may feel guilty for laughing. You should. But it's funny precisely because it shouldn't be, and because of what it says about the way people are. Does the man think a Jew is a type of deer? Did he hear correctly? Has his cultural sensitivity been tuned so low he isn't comfortable taking offense at a person with a clear prejudice? Or am I making an excuse for stupidity?
Likewise, when Borat addresses a rodeo and tells the audience "I support your war of terror" and "May George Bush drink the blood of every man, woman, and child in Iraq" - pay close attention to the reactions. The crowd applauds, then grows quiet, then becomes embarrassed for what has to be a glitch in this man's comprehension of English. But when he mangles the national anthem, the audience demands his blood.
At times Borat feels less like a comedy and more like a social experiment. Which, of course, it is. There's a plot, but it's thin. Borat begins with a short introduction to his Eastern European village (shot in Romania). Our intrepid reporter explains he's being dispatched by state-run TV to gather examples of the sophisticated ways of America. But in his New York hotel room, Borat hits a roadblock. He discovers Baywatch. Blinded by love, he decides he must find this Pamela Anderson, stuff her in the ceremonial "wedding sack," then export her to Kazakhstan.
Baron Cohen has a talent for physical comedy and a keen understanding of how to turn a situation as ordinary as buying a car into theater of the absurd. Borat and his producer travel America in an ice cream truck. Sometimes a bear rides shotgun. He visits a professional humor coach - who teaches executives how to tell jokes - and the comedy is so polite Bob Newhart would approve. The man nods patiently. Borat nods patiently. They are so respectful of each other, they accomplish nothing.
I think what will freak out certain audiences - for instance, the actual nation of Kazakhstan, which has loudly condemned the film - is the assumption they get the point though "some others" might not. But it's clear where Baron Cohen is headed with this. The target is not Kazakhstan. Or even America. His target is prejudice. And backward traditions. His weapon is satire.
But why so crude?
Because prejudice is so quiet.
These days it comes in coded language and patient explanations. We get a singular portrait of America but more so, a dissection of people who think they know better. To that end, Borat does what great satire always has: It drags ugliness to the center of the room. It shines a light. The people in this should be upset. They were set up. Now they're laughed at. The gentler dupes, you'll feel for. But the jerks? We laugh at them. We see them for the fools they are. And for a moment, they're harmless.
Contact Christopher Borrelli at: firstname.lastname@example.org