Friday, July 10, 2009

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


Sacha Baron Cohen is fearless. In BORAT: CULTURAL LEARNINGS OF AMERICA FOR MAKE BENEFIT GLORIOUS NATION OF KAZAKHSTAN, the British comedian makes fools of unsuspecting ordinary Americans (and some unordinary ones) while frequently putting his own wellbeing in danger. As Kazakh television reporter Borat Sagdiyev, Cohen shatters the customs of polite society. He makes horribly racist, sexist, and homophobic comments, but his broken English and guilelessness give him a pass (for awhile) with most he encounters. The character allows him to hold up a mirror to such ridiculous attitudes when his new acquaintances use the openings Borat gives them to express similar beliefs.

Ostensibly a road movie and a fake documentary that the other participants don’t know is fake, BORAT follows the enthusiastic reporter and his obese producer Azamat Bagatov (Ken Davitian) as they journey across the country. Their visit to America is supposed to be limited to New York City, but when Borat stumbles upon an old episode of BAYWATCH on his hotel room television, he switches their plans and sets out for Los Angeles so he can take Pamela Anderson as his wife. Along the way he talks with politicians, an antiques dealer, television anchors, fraternity brothers, and more as he takes the pulse of the United States, particularly the South.

At the risk of using hyperbole, BORAT is one of the funniest movies I’ve ever seen. Cohen’s total commitment to the character and control is astonishing. I can’t imagine a more gut-busting and shocking scene than Borat and Azamat’s naked wrestling. Cohen and Davitian go for broke and at least twice manage to top what you expect can’t be topped. While Cohen’s acting may not typify what gets classified as outstanding acting, this is a great performance. In our daily lives we’d find Borat detestable, but on screen, even when being actively mean to undeserving folks, he’s completely likable.

Borat has no boundaries, and much of the humor comes from how he upsets the normal social balance. Whether trying to be friendly with New Yorkers on the subway or southern gentlemen and women at a dinner party, Borat tests the limits of what people will accept before they are offended.

Cohen’s playing the ultimate rube in the big city, but the joke’s on those he meets. On the positive side, BORAT reveals an America where people are happy to accept someone interested in learning about this nation. Although the butts of his jokes, many people are unfailingly polite until Borat exceeds their tolerance for being offended or having personal space invaded. A hotel worker gently corrects Borat when he begins unpacking his belongings in the elevator because he’s under the wrong impression that it is his room.

There’s no doubt that Cohen is pushing his subject’s buttons, and sometimes the results, while a riot, aren’t pretty. Borat highlights American ignorance, particularly when people excuse his most inflammatory words and actions as cultural difference. The more outrageous his statements or deeds, the more someone is willing to chalk it up to the Kazakh way. It doesn’t speak well of our education and beliefs about other cultures when Borat can get away with what he says and does.

Many of the funniest bits are Borat’s interactions with others, but this is a film packed with many less complex laughs. The chicken Borat packs in his luggage is one of the best recurring gags in the film. About the time we’ve forgotten about the animal, it squawks and delivers one of the funniest moments in a movie with wall-to-wall laughs.

Most film comedies, even the good ones, are safe and predictable. Even the “edgy” ones seem too self-conscious in their provocations. BORAT is the rare comedy that operates without a safety net. Cohen and director Larry Charles’ film provides constant laughter and surprises while daring the viewer to be rightfully offended. This is a bold film likely to elicit strong opinions. Put me down on the side of those cracking up even when it feels wrong to be laughing.

Grade: A

(Photos TM and © Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All Rights Reserved.)

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