The Reeler


November 2, 2006

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

Continuation of boorish TV character's American journey an infuriating, bold comic experience worth having

The improvisatory performances of Sacha Baron Cohen may have finally earned a spot in intellectual discourse, but appreciation for his original comic routine is way overdue. Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan arrives as the culmination of many years the actor spent duping people around the world under three wildly exaggerated guises on Da Ali G Show. The basic premise found him embodying characters culled from the crudest stereotypes out there: the title thuggish hip-hop impresario; a German punk fetishist named Bruno (the star of Baron Cohen's next movie, according to the trades), and Borat Sagdiyev, a messy conflation of false conceptions surrounding third-world savagery hailing from a brutally fictionalized Kazakhstan. All three creations purport to be journalists, interviewing unsuspecting real-life subjects who often become outraged; almost as frequently, they readily accept the actor's performances as authentic personalities, revealing their own racist tendencies in their lack of surprise and disbelief. Viewed in light of these results, it seems natural that the actor wrote a college thesis on the Civil Rights movement.

The second feature-length treatment of a Baron Cohen creation (the first being the uninspired, fully-scripted Ali G Indahouse) maintains a fascinating anthropological perspective. Still, those unfamiliar with the character's history on television are unlikely to comprehend the range of his comic potential. The movie is undoubtedly an experience worth having; it's infuriating and bold, immersive and disorienting, surreal and yet uncomfortably familiar. That shouldn't detract from the merits of noteworthy Borat skits from the show, where the laughs have been much larger, and the "wow" moments -- when seemingly regular folks reveal their inner biases -- much more frequent.

The only major tweak that Baron Cohen and director Larry Charles (a veteran helmer of Curb Your Enthusiasm) have brought to the big screen is some semblance of a plot, which changes the dynamic in a crucial way. Borat narrates all the way through, as he leaves his native country to uncover the mysteries of American life, eventually becoming sidetracked trying to marry Pamela Anderson. Accompanied by his assistant Azamat (Ken Davitian), he journeys from New York to Los Angeles, interviewing (read: insulting) a diverse line-up of educators and common folk, cavorting with rodeo riders, prostitutes and frat boys, dissecting the constructs of white America.

Recapping the film's storyline feels like falling for the joke, and that's exactly what makes the cinematic update to this scenario so off-putting. On the show, it's always easy to laugh at Baron Cohen's unsuspecting victims. Borat's casual conversations are filled with slurs of the sexist, anti-Semitic and perverted sort, turning the simplest reaction shot of a horrified interviewee into a punchline. In Borat, however, viewers aren't allowed immediate entry to the laugh factory; we're on the same boat as everybody else, dragged into this fabricated world and struggling to make sense of it. The prologue is centered on Borat's life in Kazakhstan, a decrepit place calmly populated by racists and murderers, with annual celebrations such as "The Running of the Jew." There isn't anyone to appear shocked during these scenes except the audience. This makes the experience more personal and affecting (is it permissible to laugh, or are you being duped if you laugh?), and that actually might be more important than the lulls in comedic genius.

"Authentic" media folks have weighed in on the moral questions surrounding the supposed defamation of Kazakhstan (I'm still waiting for the 60 Minutes special), but it's really not much different from Jon Stewart spinning this country's headlines or -- in a domesticated version of the Baron Cohen routine -- Stephen Colbert's act as on-air neocon cartoon. In short, Borat needs to have a real nationality or the scheme won't work. People caught in his web accept the character partly because the country sounds vaguely familiar to anyone schooled in basic geography. But as unsuspecting Westerners, they buy into the tenuous suggestion that it really is such a deranged and alienated place.

The movie recycles several gags from the show, and in a number of cases, they were better the first time around. When Borat greets an entire stadium of Southerners in the middle of a rodeo with his blessing that George Bush decimate every living Iraqi, the applause is nearly unanimous. Later in the scene, when he sings his country's discriminatory national anthem to the tune of "The Star Spangled Banner," the boos come hard and fast. It's a fabulously chaotic sequence, but reminiscent of a much more successful installment in the show: In a Southern bar featuring a similarly Kentucky-fried audience, Borat performed the invented pop song "In My Country There is a Problem," featuring a chorus urging listeners to "throw the Jew down the well." Needless to say, the entire room eventually sang along without hesitation.

Nothing in Borat is quite that inspired, but there are a few vignettes that pack an indicting punch and really tie everything together. During a dinner with older bourgeoisie types who are supposedly helping him learn table manners, the character makes sexist remarks, defecates in a bag and orders a prostitute, but the star of the scene is one of the women, caught on-camera during a conversation while Baron Cohen was out of the room. Making a feeble attempt at being open-minded, she acknowledges the "cultural differences," but believes Borat can become "Americanized." Her elitism ultimately trumps any good intentions.

Baron Cohen has frequently been compared to Andy Kaufman, whose similar interactivity tricked people into unwittingly becoming a part of his performances. Borat's antics, however, have a more profound meaning to justify their existence. Jean Rouch, the French New Wave documentarian whose films in the late 1950s and early 1960s focused on struggling members of the lower class, considered his subjects "cine-people," forced into revealing the hidden aspects of their culture by the presence of a camera. Baron Cohen takes this to a new level with the integration of his off-color performances. Validating the closet racist's worst nightmare, he reveals that the biggest monsters aren't overseas -- they're hidden in plain sight, shielded by the exclusive dogma of American aristocracy and rampant xenophobia. Cultural learnings, indeed.

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