Young Geoffrey (ed_rex) wrote,
Young Geoffrey

Borat: Uncomfortable Laughter for Make Review Difficult

Hip as always, finger ever-present on the pulse of popular culture, I caught Sasha Baron Cohen's hit comedy, Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, at the last theatre it is showing in Toronto on Saturday.


For those of you just returned from Mars, Borat the character purports to be a Kazakhstani journalist, sent to the United States on a sort of cultural fact-finding mission. Cohen's Kazakstan is a westerner's nightmare of the third-world - populated by people who are ignorant, bigotted, filthy and sexually depraved. (One exampled: after kissing her on the mouth, Borat proudly introduces his sister, "Number 4 prostitute in all Kazakhstan!")

I'll come back to the decision to use the name of a real country as his character's homeland in a bit, as that is to me the most problematic element in what is probably the most offensive movie I have ever seen.

It is also one of the funniest movies I have ever seen.

Cohen's schtick is an old one - yokel visits Society and so, through his ignorance, displays Society's hypocrasies. Borat is as stupid as he is ignorant, and even more self-confident and, therefore, "innocent". If you think watching a "foreigner" at a dinner-party at an upper-class, old South, plantation showing Polaroids of his sister giving him a hand-job is funny, you will love this movie, even if you might want to find a shower soon after.

Borat (the character) is anti-semitic, an unconscious mysogynist and doesn't seem to realize that, even in the United States, slavery was abolished nearly 150 years ago.

Borat is, at heart, a road-movie. Landing in New York, he (and his hideously obese producer) set out for California, as Borat has fallen in love with Pamela Anderson. Along the way, he upsets, offends and appalls Americans of just about every stripe, ranging from New York feminists, to homeboys, to su'then gentlemen, to a stadium full of red-neck rodeo fans.

What sets this apart from a mere prank film, is that there is a also a plot and this viewer, at least, was willing to suspend his disbelief just enough to feel at least a little touched by the ending. The whore may not have had a heart of gold, but she was at least real.

Is the movie tasteless? Yes. People who find a three-minute fight between two naked men (one of them morbidly obese, both of them beyond hirsute) on several floors of a hotel funny will love it.

Is the movie politically incorrect? Oh yes. The protagonist believes that Jews have horns and are shape-shifters; that allowing women to drive cars is like letting monkey's drive buses; and that rape is an appropriate form of courtship.

Is the movie satirical? Well, yes - but only in part. Some of it is no more (and no less) than extreme Candid Camera: behave in an extreme and extremely inappropriate way, and film the reactions of people exposed to it.

But in other scenes, the reactions begin to tell stories, and not very pretty ones at that. There are the racist and sexist frat-boys in the camper who give Borat a lift; young men happy to speak of women as objects and foreigners as sub-human. The southern "gentlemen" who laughingly agree that the abolition of slavery wasn't good for them; the hotel employee who seems to understand how a man can react to the reception of a telegram announcing the death of his wife with a "high-five!"

Borat is two movies in one. The first facet is "just a series of jokes", the ignorant yokel acting foolish among his betters. The second is satire, naivety stripping away the emperor's clothes, revealing him (and so, us, in the west) as nakedly bigotted and stupid as the apparent bumpkin carying away his new suit.

Borat will almost certainly offend you; it is juvenile and crude, it plays freely with racism, it mocks without mercy left and right-wingers. It may also make you laugh very hard indeed, if your sense of humour is anything remotely like mine. And yes, I found the scene at the first hotel, in which Borat drinks from a toilet (they don't have the luxury of flush-toilets in "Kazakhstan", apparently) very funny - it underscored the point that the character, Borat, is from a very different world.

Which brings me back, finally, to the question about Sasha Baron Cohen's decision to use a real country, rather than an imaginary one, as the ostensible point-of-origin of his character.

The official Kasahk reaction was outrage, but within a week or two (or three), that changed, with the realization that the real insults in the film were aimed at the United States - that, in effect, "Kazakhstan" was used as a generic launching-pad for Cohen's real target, the West.

Real satired should make its audience uncomfortable. It should offend people.

And Borat manages to discomfort and offend. I am pretty sure even the most decadent westerner, while busting a gut, won't at some point catch him or her self short while watching this film and say, "Did I just see/hear that!?"

It's just about out of the theatres, but I'll be renting it when it comes out on DVD.

Finally, as a test, I'm posting a video for the first time. If it amuses you, I can almost guarantee you'll enjoy the movie. If it doesn't, well ... you almost certainly won't. Well alright, it's just a link, but whatever ...

In My Country There Is a Problem

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