Thursday, November 1, 2012

The Intellectual's Excuse For Jackass Is A Poor Showing: Borat

The Good: Excellent acting by Sacha Baron Cohen and Ken Davitian, Moments of humor
The Bad: Not consistently funny, Repetitive, Not so much satirical as revealing
The Basics: When fictional journalist Borat visits the U.S. he does stupid slapstick routines and exposed the underbelly of Middle America's prejudices.

Every now and then, filmmaker Michael Moore (who did Fahrenheit 9/11, reviewed here!) will put out a movie he recommends on his website and recommend that those who appreciate his views check it out. In the past, he recommended V For Vendetta (reviewed here!) and I was surprised when he recommended Borat: Cultural Learnings of America For Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan. Even Moore's recommendation was not enough to get me to see the movie in theaters. Now, on DVD, I sat down and gave Borat a spin.

Documentary maker Borat Sagdiyev journeys from the third-world nation of Kazakhstan to the United States to get information on the U.S. in an attempt to better Kazakhstan. With his producer, Azamat, Borat interviews different people, learns to drive and buys an ice cream truck and begins to head toward California after he sees an episode of Baywatch. Obsessed with finding Pamela Anderson, Borat has a falling out with Azamat when he finds Azamat looking at the same pictures of Anderson as he was and Borat finds himself alone, out of gas and in Texas with no hope of finding Pamela Anderson until he is picked up by a camper of fraternity brothers.

Along this trip, writer-actor Sacha Baron Cohen (from Da Ali G Show, reviewed here!) does what he can to expose people's prejudices as Borat by playing the bumpkin and seeing how far people will go. As well, he simply bumbles around and sees what happens, like when he does a simple falling down routine while in an antique shop.

The thing is, Borat is not the hilarious romp so many people make it out to be. Populated with simplistic humor (Borat drinking out of the toilet, a naked fight between Borat and his obese producer that involves the pair running around a hotel), repetition of so many jokes and near-constant incest, bestiality or jokes about Jews, Borat is not the brilliant satire that intellectuals want to make it out to be. Sure, the parody of Jews in Kazakhstan wherein they have giant paper mache heads and lay eggs in the street during "The Running of the Jews" is funny and actually satirical, but what follows that are jokes about sniffing out Jews, shooting Jews and other jokes that don't even go too far, they simply aren't funny.

I've long asserted that the genius of Fahrenheit 9/11 was that Michael Moore does very little editorializing. Instead, he assembled materials of public officials making statements and he let them make them. In short, Moore let the subjects of his movie damn themselves, he didn't have to condemn them for their lies, missteps or outright stupidity. The most valuable aspect of Borat is similar.

Borat works best when the fictional documentary filmmaker sits back and allows people to reveal themselves to him. So, for example, he does not need to agitate the prejudices of the Texan who advises him to shave his mustache because he looks like a terrorist and he's likely to be lynched. Similarly - despite what their lawsuit alleged - the fraternity brothers from South Carolina who pick up Borat and give him a ride do not need Borat's urgings to list racist views, declare slavery good and put down women.

In short, Borat does not so much make a satirical commentary on the United States, but it exposes Middle America for the festering prejudices and hatreds that exist under the surface. The most subtle and clever of these is when a Southern preacher excuses himself from a society dinner, not when Borat brings a bag of feces to the table but rather, when Borat brings a black prostitute to the meal. Exposing the absurdity of the evangelicals when Borat visits a prayer meeting is funny to watch as well (sexual experiences and religious expression are probably best not captured on film!).

But whatever brilliant moments of exposing the problems of the United States are presented in Borat, they are diluted with the juvenile pranks and slapstick antics that appeal to the same crowd that enjoys the Jackass movies. It's just dumb and for Sacha Baron Cohen, who is ALWAYS in character in this movie and all of the DVD extras, it's beneath his obvious talents as an actor and comedian. Cohen had the opportunity to truly play off the ignorance and prejudice of Americans and he wastes the effort by putting in stupid gags that fall short of brilliance.

And Sacha Baron Cohen deserves a lot of credit for his acting. He never slips out of his absurd character, no matter how outrageous the pranks get. No matter how far Cohen pushes as Borat, he stays in character, apparently blissfully unaware of the consequences. In the bonus features on the DVD, there are innumerable gags that it's astonishing he makes it through (the endless cheese display in the supermarket is impressive that he makes it through without any hint of his facade cracking). Sacha Baron Cohen impresses the viewer with the authenticity of his character in so many (supposedly) unscripted interviews and interactions.

I want to close this review by addressing something that, I believe, too few people who comment on this movie address. A lot was made about the government of Kazakhstan objecting to the portrayal of the country in Borat. Those who wanted to dismiss the Kazakhstan perspective simply say "America gets it just as bad" and "take a joke." While the Kazakhstan government has now decided to play along, I think they have the most legitimate beef with the movie.

Unlike the United States where Borat simply lets idiots be idiots, the portrayal of his fictional version of Kazakhstan is just a litany of insults (they are portrayed as incestual, unclean, bigoted and stupid). Kazakhstan is a real place and while the morons the producers of Borat sought out to portray the United States, the real Kazakhstan is just the brunt of vicious jokes that aren't satirical or insightful, they're just mean.

The reason this is an issue at all is because: 1. Borat is a spin-off of a character from Da Ali G Show and 2. Borat is pursuing the lowest common denominator in the U.S.; he could have simply made up a place. Borat (the movie) hinges on the idea that those who are being interviewed by Borat have not seen Da Ali G Show. Because they are unaware that Borat is a fictional character, they take him for who he presents himself. The whole gag is hinged on the idea that they take him as a real person (as opposed to a fictional journalist). If the victims of Borat's gags do not know - or cannot figure out - that he is not a real person, there's no reason to figure they actually care that much about where he's from. Which leads me to my second idea.

Borat can sell himself from anywhere, but the beauty of the gag is that because he is playing off ignorance - the Americans he encounters take him completely at his word when he describes his backwater nation - he doesn't have to be from anywhere. It's easy money to bet that the people Sacha Baron Cohen as Borat was fooling couldn't find Kazakhstan on a map. Americans (myself included) are almost entirely ignorant about what nations actually make up the former Soviet Union and where they are actually located. Most could not name them all and even fewer could find them on the map (general area, sure, but not filling in a blank map). As a result, there's simply no decent reason to insult Kazakhstan. Borat could have pointed to an ocean on a map and said he was from "Pludekisgrad" and the victims of his pranks would still have bought it.

In short, I can accept that the United States is filled with idiotic yokels who will tell strangers from another land just how stupid and prejudiced they are, but the citizens of Kazakhstan are just people who live in an economically depressed third world nation. That's not their fault and they don't deserve to be the brunt of jokes that are cruel and inflammatory. They have to live there.

For other films with Sasha Baron Cohen, be sure to check out my reviews of:
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber Of Fleet Street
Talladega Nights: The Ballad Of Ricky Bobby


For other film reviews, please be sure to visit my Movie Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2012, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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