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Sunday, November 12, 2006

Borat

Borat is many things, but boring it isn’t. The surprise hit of the season, Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, opened this week at the Essex Cinemas and it was like a magnet for young adult movie-goers throughout the community. Perhaps they were impressed by the length of the title. Perhaps it was the spirit of international goodwill, or maybe would-be viewers thought they were in for an exciting travelogue or documentary, certainly a change from the usual fare of action adventures and comedies that usually fill the screens at the Essex Cinemas. Okay, okay, so who am I kidding? They are all fans of "Da Ali G Show", a cable tv series that first aired in 2000 and has been revived sporadically in the years since, the place where the obviously eccentric social commentator was originally introduced and became an instant success.

It was obvious from the comments of those leaving the showing that had concluded right before the one I was going in to watch that Borat: The Movie (let’s leave it at the shorter version of the title for the sake of my two typing fingers) was without a doubt one of the “funniest”, “hilarious”, “twisted”, and “just the most wrong things you’ll ever see.” That last remark was enough to perk me up and get the adrenaline going. There is nothing I enjoy more than subversive comedy, as long as it has a purpose and is not just rambling trash like Jackass: Number Two where there is no plot, merely a string of stupid and mostly vile pranks. I could hardly wait to “meet” this guy named Borat.

What I got was, indeed, exactly what the previous audience had promised. Borat:The Movie is one of the funniest comedies I’ve seen in years, due entirely to the perfect portrayal of the lead character, performed by Sacha Baron Cohen (Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby), who is also responsible for creating Borat Sagdiyev, a Kazakhstani television reporter with a particularly spectacular grasp of the English language – NOT!

Filmed in a true documentary style, complete with subtitles in English as needed, Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (sorry, I couldn’t resist) begins with an introductory overview of Borat’s home, family, and neighborhood so that we
might see some of the cultural similarities and differences between Kazakhstan and the United States. We hear of Borat’s genealogy, proudly full of rapists and thieves, which Borat seems to consider titles much like what you’d assign to royalty. We see the upscale (?) home he shares with his family, including his own “plush” master bedroom which he shares with only one ox. He introduces his sister, “the fourth favorite prostitute in all of Kazakhstan” (she even has the loving cup award to display for the camera as proof) and she gladly displays her talents for French kissing using her brother as her partner. Ewwww.

From there, Borat and his rotund producer, Azamat Bagatov (Ken Davitian; Stone & Ed) travel to New York to film Borat on the streets as he interviews a variety of people in different situations. The real fun comes, however, from Borat’s odd social sensibilities. He finds it perfectly acceptable to use the large planter directly in front of Trump Tower as a place to squat and relieve himself, just as he finds carrying a live hen in his suitcase wherever he goes perfectly normal. Chasing strangers down the streets to kiss their cheeks in a greeting of friendship is as much a part of his day as washing out his underwear in the lake at Central Park. Borat’s naiveté is as charming as his behavior is gross.

Much of the film from this point involves Borat doing some twisted, if downright outrageous, things to “real life” people in the tradition of “Punked” or (for old geezers like me who remember the original) “Candid Camera”, which was “catching people in the act of being themselves” long before Cohen or Davitian were even born.

The best bits, in fact, involve just the type of people most likely to be offended by the mere idea of being ridiculed, and yet they are so ripe for it they make themselves laughable simply by being who they are without exaggeration. I am, of course, talking about Borat’s visit to a fundamentalist religious revival. The ministers and flock are all just being themselves, completely snowed by the story that Borat is really a documentary filmmaker, and so as he participates in their service the religious figures seem enthusiastic at the chance to be a part of a movie, spreading their miraculous healing to people across the world. It is amazing how easy it is to get people to agree to just about anything as long as there is a camera involved and a promise of cinematic glory.

As Borat and Bagatov make their way across the country on their way to California, a stop in Atlanta, for example, brings an invitation from the Magnolia Fine Dining Society, some of the area’s self-appointed elite for dinner. They are gracious and even happy to be filmed and make any number of allowances for Borat’s miscreant behavior at the table, even excusing something so outrageous it would more likely than not break up any dinner party anywhere else if a camera was not present, but with fame on the line, our Susan Lucci-like hostess maintains a slightly shaken, not stirred, reaction to Borat’s… well, you’ll just have to see it for yourself. (Oh pooh, you say. You’re getting close, I’ll say.)

When Borat manages to interview Alan Keyes, former Presidential candidate and Ronald Reagan's ambassador to the United Nations Economic and Social Council, he refers to him as a “true chocolate face” and leaves Keyes looking as bumbling and dim-witted as Borat himself, which is not easy to do considering Keyes’ impressive background as a Harvard scholar and author.

Still, it is Borat’s obvious bigotry that is probably most rattling to the majority of viewers, but it is so pervasive and blatant that it becomes laughable in its’ offensiveness. For example, while staying at a bed and breakfast along the road, Borat and Bagatov spit out an elderly couple’s gracious snacks when they learn that these friendly folks are Jewish, then they cower in their room,
convinced that the cockroaches they see creeping in under the door are their hosts, since it is a commonly known fact (at least to them) that Jews are evil shape-shifters. Needless to say, anti-Semitism is not the only flaw in his cavalcade of prejudice. The homophobic references throughout the film are so many (and way too graphic), it would be impossible to list them here. Cohen, of course, is himself Jewish, so the irony of making his own people the target of so much of his acidity is, one supposes, meant to remind us, the well-informed audience, that this is all done without any real mean-spiritedness and is purely tongue-in-cheek, which I would hope all but the most strident and self-righteously wound-too-tight politically correct goose-steppers will understand. The real scary people are the ones Borat crosses who not only agree with his silly exaggerated biases but support them. When, for instance, he asks a gun shop owner what is the best gun to us to kill a Jew the man doesn’t even blink or miss a beat. He simply pulls out his recommended weapon. I’d hope those offended by Borat: The Movie would direct their attentions to the real people shown in the film who show their true colors so vividly and leave the satirist alone. Borat is, after all, only the messenger, pulling back the curtain and giving us a picture of the underbelly of America’s working class.

Yes, Borat: The Movie is shameless in its’ exploitation of the mindlessness of Americans who will follow politics and trends without ever really questioning what they are really doing. A sparkling
example of this is when Borat manages to get himself invited to sing the national anthem before the beginning of a rodeo at a packed stadium in the South. Wearing an American flag shirt and a cowboy hat, he is introduced and then offers a few words before his song. He rouses the crowd with his declaration that “Kazakhstan supports America’s War of Terror!” and continues with hoots, cheers and applause even when he amps things up so far as to suggest “May George W. Bush drink the blood of every man, woman and child in Iraq!” It is enough to make me ashamed to think that I live in a country that allows people this dumb to walk the streets yet alone vote. And the worst part is that this is the image of what the rest of the world thinks Americans are like. No, I take that back. The worst, worst part is that there is a significant segment of the population for which that image is entirely accurate. Sigh.

Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan is
definitely satire with a bite. It is like looking in a funhouse mirror and then realizing after spending a couple of hours laughing at how exaggerated, larger-than-life, and bent out of shape the image of ourselves seems to be and then finding out that the mirror you are looking at isn’t distorted at all and this is what the real deal looks like. Maybe the laugh’s on us in the end. Even so, it’s a great movie. Go see it at the Essex Cinemas now.

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