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January 15, 2007

Movie Review – Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (2006)

by JAMES BRIGHAM

A friend of mine from Indy Film Buffs once said that after watching Sacha Cohen’s HBO series Da Ali G Show, he knew that he had gotten old. The style of humor struck him as being so unfunny that he had to chalk up the absence of laughter to the generation gap. I, however, see that show (and Borat, its subsequent film spin-off) as a new chapter in a history of improvised, guerrilla comedy. Are Sacha Cohen’s sequences so different from the man-on-the-street interviews from the heyday of Steve Allen’s talk show? Or what about David Letterman’s bits that revolved around feeding absurd lines to his crew as they wandered the public sphere? There’s also Howie Mandel’s shtick of disguising himself while secretly recording normal people’s reactions to his annoyances. Robert Smigel’s Triumph the Insult Comic Dog also springs to mind and seems to be the dirtiest version of this strategy.

Or at least, it was until Da Ali G Show was born. Cohen’s trio of reoccurring characters has handily claimed the crown of invasive, unplanned hilarity. As Ali G, the jive talking, hip-hop poseur, he bounces from venue to venue, testing the limits of film producers, congressmen, patent attorneys, and others. As the so-trendy-it-hurts Bruno, he exposes the hypocrisy and absurdity of the fashion world. But it’s as Borat, the Kazakhstani reporter, that he’s seen his greatest artistic and commercial success in America thus far. To watch this inept, oddball character travel the United States is a lesson in how to make a sidesplitting comedy that makes you think as well as chuckle. If comedy is rooted in pain, as some humorists suggest, then Borat will prove to be a goldmine for theorists and standup performers alike for years to come.

Religion, ethnicity, class, and gender are savagely lampooned as Borat’s fish-out-of-water story places him at odds with the culture of America. Borat questions the notion that women have brains comparable in size to that of a man. He seeks to buy a car capable of plowing through and killing specific minorities. The Kazakhstani reporter even begins speaking in tongues in an evangelical church after accepting Jesus’ love.

It isn’t just that Cohen kills sacred cows onscreen (lots of edgy comedies have done that), it’s the way in which he does it. A joke can sideswipe you out of nowhere during a routine monologue to the camera or it can be drawn out over several painful minutes as you sit in your seat, squirming a bit and feeling embarrassed for the victims of the elaborate ruse. More than once I heard people in my audience say aloud, “This guy is crazy!” or “Oh my God!” Sharp intakes of breath at the realization of the setup were as common as guffaws during the screening of the film.

People’s reactions differed all the time, as Cohen’s comedic sights are constantly shifting from subject to subject and include material on: celebrities, the mentally retarded, blacks, denizens of Kazakhstan, gays, feminists, politicians, frat boys, Jews, gypsies, the wealthy, New Yorkers, and southerners. It’s hard to level accusations of racism, classism, or any other “ism” against Cohen when his movie is targeting so many different groups of people. That’s largely why I’m inclined to dub it as brilliant. In a way, I think the movie’s trying to unite us all in laughter by exposing the idiocy in the ways we seek to divide ourselves. Whether that was Cohen’s intent is another story all together. But couldn’t an idiot savant still be considered a genius?

3 1/2 stars


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