“Borat”, the brainchild of Sacha Baron Cohen, a British comedian, who seems to have a knack for creating truly off-center characters (he was the most memorable voice in “Madagascar” and the most memorable character in “Talladega Nights”) and directed by Larry Charles (one of the writer/ producers involved in “Seinfeld”, “Curb Your Enthusiasm” and other television projects), is a truly funny, truly outrageous and truly memorable film. It is not a perfect film, but it is extremely funny and extremely un-politically correct.
From the moment Borat begins introducing us to the people of his village, we know we are in for a strange trip. He quickly exposes us to the character’s feelings, philosophies, prejudices and phobias. We learn a little about his country and squirm in our seats. You just can’t say the things he says in our country. It isn’t politically correct and people would get upset. Will he fit in our country?
What Cohen does here is almost brilliant. He is making fun of our preconceived notions of what Kazakhstan is like because we know little, if anything, about the country. We expect it to look like he is portraying it. He merely amplifies the image, making it more of a caricature. We expect them to use horses to pull their cars, to marry young and have many children and we expect them to carry a rooster in their luggage.
Then he flies to New York.
In New York, the humor continues, but it changes focus. We are laughing at Borat’s exchanges with real people, but we are also laughing at their interactions with him. New Yorkers run from him, or swear at him, as soon as he approaches, trying to shake their hand or to kiss them on the cheek.
All of these interactions appear to be completely improvised. The people he meets along the journey appear to be real “normal” people who have no idea who Borat really is. They seem to believe they are actually interacting with a reporter from a foreign country that many mistakenly refer to as Russia. If this is true, it is simply amazing to me many of these people are not threatening legal action. They don’t come off well and that is what makes much of this humor all the more outstanding. And difficult to watch. As we are laughing at these statements, we are also uncomfortable because even though we know people can’t still think this way, we know people still think this way.
At a rodeo, he is invited to sing the National Anthem. Before hand, he tries to kiss a man he has just met on the cheeks. He says “Don’t do that, that’s what those guys who float around do”, waving his hand at his wrist, and then makes a comment about them that is truly shocking. People really still believe these things? Amazing. Then, when he steps out to begin singing, he says “I support your war of terror”. The audience cheers because no one seems to really hear what he is saying. They hear the words “war” and “terror” and immediately assume he is showing a sign of support. Later, after taking an etiquette class, he meets with a group of well-off Southerners for a formal dinner. They try to understand the cultural differences and build a bridge between the cultures, but when his guest arrives, everything turns for the worst.
The brilliance of this comedy comes from the fact that we are, initially, laughing at his backwards little country, and all of their eccentricities, then we are laughing at our backwards little country and all of our eccentrics.
Cohen does an amazing job of bringing this character to life. Early on, we realize Borat shares his countries fear of and hatred for people of Jewish ancestry. At no point does he ever back off or lessen this viewpoint. We watch the running of “the Jew” in his village. Later, he and his producer stop at a bed and breakfast and learn the couple who own it are Jewish. They shrink back in horror, but feel trapped. Throughout the film, Cohen maintains all of the characters eccentricities, creating an extremely consistent and believable character. This is all the more interesting and amazing when you consider how broad the comedy is. Generally, this type of character would laugh at himself, trying to clue us in to the joke, but he doesn’t. He doesn’t seem to realize there is a joke and as we continue to watch, we begin to think perhaps we are watching a documentary.
“Borat” contains a lot of laughs, and they are consistent throughout. But there is a lot of truly adult stuff. I was surprised by the amount of full frontal male nudity. In one scene, Borat and his manager get into a fight and begin rolling around their hotel room, completely nude. Its a funny scene, but also sophomoric, because the fight degenerates into a bunch of homoerotic icons. The main purpose of the joke, besides the homoerotic references, seems to be the fact Borat’s manager is extremely overweight. Not only are they guys, who fall into a bunch of sexual positions, but one guy is extremely fat. They are doing the two things many might find disgusting. Having sex with a man. And having sex with an overweight person. This was not the highlight of the film, but because it is shocking it is still funny.
The film is technically brilliant. Every frame has been given a grainy image, to make it appear the Kazakh crew is using old video equipment, which is probably new to them. Every time a new person appears on screen, there is a title in Borat’s native language with the American translation superimposed sloppily over the top. The film also resembles any propaganda film we have seen from another country, the same sort of phony staged introductions, the same awkward moments, the grainy footage looks like it has been played through ten too many bad elementary school projectors.
In the area where I live, many matinee screenings sold out. I also saw that many evening shows were sold out very early on each day of the opening weekend. This rarely happens. When it does, it is usually an indication the film will have a monstrous opening weekend. Not really surprising because Cohen has been everywhere, always in character; “Saturday Night Live”, “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” and his show has a cult following. This, and the universally glowing reviews, have apparently created a phenomenon. Amazingly, the film opened on about 900 screens, about half of a normal studio release. Fox has apparently seen the writing on the wall and already ordered a sequel.
That is good news. High five.