BY MATT JUSTUS
Director: Larry CharlesStarring: Sacha Baron Cohen, Ken Davitian, Pamela Anderson
This past weekend’s top film was the surprise hit Borat!: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (coming in second place for longest film title, behind Dr. Strangelove). For readers unfamiliar with the character’s background, Borat Sagdiyev is one of three characters played by Sacha Baron Cohen on HBO’s hilarious “Da Ali G Show” (Cohen, as Ali G, once interviewed our own Professor Dershowitz). The basic premise, both on the show and in the film, is that Borat is a Kazakhstani reporter, on assignment in the “US and A” to learn about the American way of life and bring that knowledge back to improve his home country – he does this by traveling the country and interviewing Americans who are not in on the joke. Borat is a na’ve, candid person: he hates Jews, homosexuals, and Uzbeks because everyone does in his version of Kazakhstan – these values are so much a part of his culture that he assumes that they are shared by everyone he meets. The funniest, and at the same time most alarming, aspect of the show and the film alike is that he is more correct than we would like to believe. The government of Kazakhstan has taken issue with Borat, arguing that his claims about their country hurt its reputation in America. This misses the point. Borat! is not funny because the character is a barbarian from a completely alien culture. It is funny because his prejudices against homosexuals, Jews, and minorities (though not specifically against Uzbeks) are not so alien at all. The joke is not on him or Kazakhstan; it is on us.
Given that the format of the show is more sketch comedy than sitcom, I was surprised that the film actually had something of a plot. Borat and his producer Azamat (Davitian) come to America to report in New York City, but Borat decides to go to Los Angeles to marry Pamela Anderson. This leads the pair on a cross-country road trip in an old ice cream truck, along with a bear for security (they can’t fly because they fear that the Jews will repeat their 9/11 attacks). On the way, they pass through, among other things, a gay pride parade, a megachurch, and a rodeo, the latter of which gives him the opportunity to receive cheers for delivering the line “May George W. Bush drink the blood of every man, woman, and child in Iraq!” Cohen certainly has a gift for setting up hilarious scenarios, both merely awkward (his conversation with a group of feminists) and completely over-the-top outrageous (the payoff to the Pamela Anderson storyline). That he manages to avoid breaking character, even when drunk, is very impressive.
Please note that the film is not for everyone. Even those who will understand and appreciate where Cohen is going may be turned off by his methods of getting there. The film is crass, crude, and disturbingly graphic. Be very certain that you are comfortable with each reason that the film is (quite appropriately) rated R before entering the theater. The one issue I have with the film is that Cohen’s performance is so comical, and his accent so mimic-able, that I fear the film gives the audience the option of ignoring its message in favor of the shock value and quoteability – the chorus of drunken exclamations of “Very Nice!” (Borat’s catch phrase) which could be heard as I left the theater give some credence to this theory. However, by including gross-out humor, Cohen may be attempting to ensure that the people who see the film are the ones who need exposure to its message most.
If you do happen to see the film and enjoy it, I would highly recommend renting the DVDs of the television show, both to see Borat leading a bar full of patrons in a rousing chorus of “Throw the Jew Down the Well,” and for “Funkyzeit mit Bruno,” Cohen’s sketches about a gay Austrian fashionista rumored to be the protagonist of his next film.