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Culture Shock: Borat

The Stop Smiling Film Review

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Friday, November 03, 2006

Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan
Directed by Larry Charles
(Fox)

Reviewed by Nick Pinkerton

I left Larry Charles and Sacha Baron Cohen’s feature-length Borat adventure with that rarest of post-film sensations, with the conviction that I had seen something that I had no immediate precedent for comparison to — that I had seen something new. For better or for worse, Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan is unique, an important movie, a multiplex comedy that doubles as a conceptual art epic.

Borat Sagdiyev is just one of shapeshifter English comedian Cohen’s alter egos, rounding out the trifecta of faux media personalities who make up the cast of his Da Ali G Show, alongside faintly fascistic Austrian Gay TV talking-head Bruno and West Staines-bred youth reporter Ali G. Cohen transforms into Kazakh television presenter Borat by growing out a massive intimidating moustache to compliment a fixed, ingratiating smile (trademark question: “I like you; do you like me?”); hanging a discount suit (allegedly never washed) from his lank frame; and peppering his clinched-sounding English with a distinct juvenile patois (“sexy time,” “hand party”), bits of Hebrew and Polish, and casual anti-Semitism which borders on the medieval in its superstition.

Cohen’s shtick is ingeniously simple. Borat’s homeland, of which he is a representative specimen, is portrayed as a backwater populated by dingy peasants and village rapists, the cosmopolitan EU’s nightmare neighbors. The character has gone through previous incarnations as an Albanian and Moldavian, but the changes in nationality are hardly relevant — Borat’s persona relies heavily on the fact that only a select few can discern the Eastern Orthodox church from Islam, much less understand the finer points of self-identity among former Soviet satellite nations. Cohen uses Borat’s developing-world backwardness to coax out backwardness in the supposedly civilized US of A, which he purports to be studying for Kazakh TV. Probably the most famous Borat segment of the comic’s HBO showcase involved leading part of the crowd at a Tucson country-and-western bar through a “Kazakh folk song” with the rousing chorus “Throw the Jew down the well / So my country can be free.” And though Kazakhstan’s largest theater chain has announced it won’t be hosting Borat’s movie — just the latest wrinkle in the surreal, publicly waged war-of-words between the Kazakh ministry and an ever-in-character Cohen — there’s no question that it’s America that suffering the real defamation here.

Of course, the very nature of Cohen’s comedy demands that he deals with people who are slightly outside the loop of pop culture, and oblivious to the ruse they’re caught up in. Just how non-media savvy is your average Borat “victim”? Well, they’re obviously signing releases to appear on screen, meaning they either have exceptionally robust, self-deprecating senses of humor, or have no idea quite how badly they’ve just come off . (Pat Haggerty, the humor coach visited by Borat, in a BBC News interview: “To the best of my memory, I didn’t say anything stupid. However, I’m in the movie. The only downside I see is if I appear to be a fool”). It’s telling that Cohen’s favorite targets are yokels and politicians.

By his nature, Borat can’t thrive in a media-saturated capital city for long — I seem to recollect a Page Six item about Cohen-as-Borat being recognized while working a New York subway crowd. After disembarking in NYC, he stays just long enough to interview some Veteran Feminists of America who’ve presumably been sealed in a pop-deprivation tank since 1976, and to reinforce stereotypes (the crux of his comedy) about New Yorkers as pathologically abrasive. It’s below the Mason-Dixon that Cohen goes to find his most memorable American material — flamer Bruno loves to tease the flower of Southern manhood just onto the cusp of hate crime, and Cohen even semi-successfully assayed his post as the avatar of fish-out-of-water gay panic on the big screen as a queer French Formula One driver in this summer’s Talladega Nights.

Transfixed by the aquatic slow-mo images of Pamela Anderson in a Baywatch rerun, Borat pulls out for California with marriage on his mind — this after a hotel employee delivers a telegram explaining that Borat’s wife has been killed, news which he receives with his ubiquitous, jubilant “High five!” The real mark of the film’s accomplishment is how cleanly it integrates Cohen’s interactions with the unsuspecting into the template of Borat’s conventionally arcing on-the-road narrative. Under the stewardship of Larry Charles, Borat is a miracle of verisimilitude, and I probably won’t be alone in my spending much of the film’s runtime wondering about technical specifics, the ergonomics of the shoot, just what was captured surreptitiously.

The lesson learned on this journey is predetermined: Charles and Cohen know what they’re looking for, and they get it. (The applicable Mencken quote: “Nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public.”) Through judicious button-pushing and dab-handed editing, Borat offers an outside-looking-in caricature of our Republic’s character, the savagery of which far surpasses Robert Frank. Some of the more pungent bit players along Borat’s voyage include a rodeo manager who offhandedly voices his support for anti-gay pogroms; an RV of ill-bred road-tripping frat boys whose partying betrays an obvious undercurrent of desperation, and whose digressions into “explaining” America make you want to avert your eyes; and a middle-class dining room whose brittle pretense of Southern gentility disintegrates when a thick black prostitute arrives at the door at dinner guest Borat’s invitation (to realize quite how racially charged their hysteria is, you’ve got to see what else Cohen brings to the table that they’re willing to laugh off). With the exception of Alan Keyes, black America fares slightly better, at least coming off as comparatively laid back.

Sculptor Linda Stein, among the Veteran Feminists who meet with Borat, later asked why Cohen’s work “zooms in on human weaknesses and foibles” — as good as admitting she doesn’t know the first thing about comedy. And Borat is a shamelessly funny movie; in addition to being a deft, unblinking improviser, Cohen is a fearless physical comedian, not above spastic pratfalls in an antique store’s Southern “heritage” section or, in the film’s comic aria, a nude wrestling match with his hirsute, flabby producer (Ken Davitian). The advance quotes on the movie are overzealous by a mile, but the leap from skit to feature is one that’s swallowed up plenty of impressive talents, and Cohen’s executed it beautifully.

The real question is: what’s ahead for Sacha Baron Cohen? Universal’s just set a Bruno feature film in motion and, assuming the Austrian can still go relatively incognito after Borat’s as-good-as-guaranteed success, you can already anticipate Cohen’s comic franchise getting a little over-comfortable, as everybody who’s in on the joke lines up for a laugh at the handful of left-behind hicks who aren’t. The destructive force of Cohen’s comedy is too great to confine itself to napalming ducks in a barrel, though — and however much Cohen lays on the line for a laugh, clowning podunks and fratboys for a hipped moviegoing crowd isn’t my definition of gutsy. As much as I admired Borat, I couldn’t help wanting to see this attack-dog comedy turn on its owner.

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