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film criticism by maryann johanson | since 1997

Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (review)

Truths Spoken in Jest

Sacha Baron Cohen is a genius. A crazy genius, maybe, a man who takes dedication to his art to a level courting criminal prosecution and bodily harm, but a genius nevertheless. He has invented a whole new kind of movie with Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan. It’s like he looked at Candid Camera and prank phone calls by morning drive-time radio DJs and Jackass and said, Okay, this is crap, but it could be good — it could be provocative instead of merely idiotic. It’s as if he looked at Andy Kaufman’s Foreign Man and his wrestling little girls and pushing humor to boundaries beyond which it starts getting awkward and uncomfortable and said, Fine, but why stop there? Borat is comedy as angry social commentary, as raging against willful ignorance and proud bigotry and blind hypocrisy, as performance art that doesn’t end but is still evolving and seems to continue commenting and raging long past the point at which the film itself was in the can. Borat is a movie that changes how you look at movies, how you judge what they can do.

For starters: Is there an actor alive who can dare to suggest that what Sacha Baron Cohen (Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby, Madagascar) did here isn’t one of the greatest performances in the history of cinema? I’m not exaggerating: he had to stay in character around people who had no idea that he was in character, that he was not, in fact, a TV reporter from Eastern Europe Central Asia; he improvised all his dialogue with “costars” who didn’t know they should be feeding him cues and straight lines; and he couldn’t screw up, he couldn’t call “Cut!”, and he couldn’t do a second take, never mind a third or a tenth. Not that I’m dissing actors who do the usual scripted, ten-takes-per-scene thing, either — I have immense respect for people who can create believable characters shooting out of sequence, in front of green screens, amidst all the artificial distractions of a movie set. But Borat is seat-of-your-pants filmmaking — aided and abetted by a tiny guerrilla crew — that throws away the artificiality of movie production and embraces “performance” as something more than a delicate creature than can exist only within the protected confines of a soundstage or a location.

Borat as a whole pushes moviemaking in a new direction for an era in which things like cellphone video cameras and YouTube and the decline in TV viewership in favor of Web surfing have diminished the distinction between “reality” and “entertainment.” Hell, half of what’s left on TV these days is game shows featuring nonactors, Survivor and such, and so ordinary people aren’t just more comfortable on camera but more likely to feel like they deserve to be on camera. Borat and Baron Cohen take advantage of the new ubiquity of video and the desire seemingly of everyone to get their 15 minutes (among the many other stupidities of modern life they take advantage of) as the “journalist” travels the country exploring the culture and trying to figure out just what makes America America. Why wouldn’t people want to talk to Kazakhstan television? Who doesn’t want to be on TV, even if it is TV halfway around the world?

And the things that those regular people are comfortable saying on camera are truly extraordinary. The rodeo manager who declares that the United States is trying to institute the death penalty for homosexuality. The college frat boys who take the position that European-descended white males are dangerously put upon by minorities, immigrants, and women. But getting people to say shocking things is far from what Borat is all about. For me, the biggest joke is that Borat is allegedly a backwater Neanderthal, an ignorant bigot, a thoroughly uncivilized buffoon… but then half the people he talks to in supposedly civilized America are no better than him. Borat punctures the balloon of assumed American superiority, holds up a mirror on American culture, and the reflection is not always pretty.

It isn’t always ugly, either, though — Baron Cohen fails to punk many of those in his sights, like the feminist group in New York City to whom he explains that Kazakh scientists have proven that women have tiny brains; they don’t take his crap and they walk out on him. Those people may be fooled by Baron Cohen, but they are not made fools of by him — the many people onscreen who behave with integrity make Borat the joke as much as Baron Cohen does by taking his sexism and his racism to such absurd extremes that it holds up the very concepts as obviously utterly contemptible. (Perhaps it’s no surprise that Baron Cohen chose to work with director Larry Charles here: Charles’s Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm also juggle the satire of minutiae in mundanity with that of the characters who revel in it.)

And Borat is a joke, one that’s as outrageously funny as it is furiously bitter. Baron Cohen’s conception of Borat and his world, his tiny Kazakh village — where we first meet him in the film — is a stunningly potent sendup of Western ideas about the supposed backwardness of Eastern Europe Central Asia, but it’s also, in this more scripted and controlled arena, one that has the luxury of piling on punchlines. You never know when a joke is going to end, so you barely have time to catch your breath in between gasping with laughter. That’s true of the movie as a whole, too: it builds to a crescendo that you don’t even realize it’s building to until you’re in the thick of it.

Borat pushes his luck with those he interviews onscreen, pushes and pushes and pushes in an attempt to break them… and then he does the same to the audience with the, ahem, naked wrestling scene. Not to spoil it, but a phrase like wickedly hilarious doesn’t even begin to cover it, and the delicious sedition of the mind that conceived it — I assume this means you, Baron Cohen — must be slathered in worshipful awe. Never mind the level of daring and masculine self-confidence that the sequence demanded on the part of Baron Cohen and one of the other actual actors in the film — Ken Davitian (S.W.A.T., Holes) as Borat’s producer, Azamat Bagatov — though that alone will rank this scene as one of the classics of all moviedom. But the brilliance of it is that it puts us in the spot that Borat’s punk’d interviewees have been in, turns the mirror on us. How do you deal? Do you huff and get offended and walk out of the theater? Do you get offended but then stop and ask yourself why you’re offended, what’s truly offensive about it other than that it pokes massive fun at one of the few taboos we have left? Or do you just laugh yourself silly and boggle that anyone could be so turned off by something that is clearly meant to make you think about the unspoken constraints on our thoughts and our behavior we usually accept without question?

You know, kinda like the whole movie does.


see also:
Borat Subsequent Moviefilm movie review: punching way the hell up (#AmazonPrime)


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Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (2006) | directed by Larry Charles
US/Can release: Nov 03 2006
UK/Ire release: Nov 02 2006

MPAA: rated R for pervasive strong crude and sexual content including graphic nudity, and language
BBFC: rated 15 (contains strong language and sex references)

viewed at a semipublic screening with an audience of critics and ordinary moviegoers

official site | IMDb | trailer
more reviews: Movie Review Query Engine | Rotten Tomatoes

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