Borat - Cultural Learnings Of America For Make Benefit Glorious Nation Of Kazakhstan
Baron-Cohen's previous big screen appearence was as the villain in Talladega Nights, Will Ferrells NASCAR comedy. Like the films of Ferrell and his Frat Pack cohorts, Borat plays with a style of comedy that uses improvisation to give the comedy a constant feeling of one-upmanship, piling on punchline after punchline. It's exhausting, and I've certainly missed enough jokes deafened by my own laughter to merit seeing it again quite soon. It's unafraid to take a surreal turn in pursuit of a laugh, and when this sometimes requires ditching the prank filming and using scripted or staged segments the change is not particularly jarring, and occasionally un-noticeable, mostly because both styles are equally funny.
Where computer effects have reached a point where they can create something photo-real but utterly unconvincing, it's increasingly difficult to find something that will really shock or impress you at the cinema. Like Jackass: The Movie, Borat is an unconventional type of film but it satisfies these basic requirements of the cinematic experience more competently than anything in recent memory. I saw this film in a crowded cinema and the communal expressions of surprise, shock, tension, and pissing oneself laughing were remarkable. By using the faux-documentary style and weaving a work of fiction into the real world to really draw the viewer in, the makers of Borat have come up with something truly cinematic in scope, and without a single special effect. Though its finale is shocking for completely different reasons, the way it is built up is quite traditional film making. More than Lord Of The Rings (which was fucking gay and dull) or Harry Potter or anything like that, this is a film that demands to be seen on a huge screen in a dark room full of people.
The issue of racism has always hung around Borat, particularly since the Kazakh Government released various statements and suchlike vehemently distancing themselves from him. While issues of race often play a large part in the humour of the film, I think it's absurd to say that it promotes racism in any way.
Borat is clearly not a particularly specific racial stereotype, he's just an absurd caricature, an amalgmation of all the bizarre uninformed attitudes towards foreigners. It's similar to Robert Crumb's frequent depiction of gollywog-esque black skinned tribeswomen. Both artists are simply making use of outdated ideas that still persist in our culture, Borat's anti-semitic statements (his oft-stated belief that Jews actually have horns on their head, for example) are simply a reflection of the stupid things that stupid people will believe if they're told to, or not told not to. What Cohen gets away with illustrates how batshit insane certain sections of society think foreigners must be. It gives him a license to dangle bold anti-semitic, sexist and homophobic bait into conversations, and whoever bites has very little grounds for complaint when his views are revealed on the big screen.
The film is probably skating on thinnest ice when Borat stays in a Jewish B&B and believes the owners are poisoning him, and also capable of mutating into cockroaches. But he runs off before actually offending them outright, so I'm pretty sure I'm OK with that. I'm deliberately avoiding that catch-all "It can't be racist because he's a Jew himself" argument that's doing the rounds, because it's obviously stupid bollocks.
It's obvious why a country wouldn't want a mascot like Borat - he's bumbling, oafish and has a completely warped idea of acceptable behaviour (precisely where certain people decide to draw the line is quite revealing). Despite these traits, one of the film's biggest surprises is how likeable and sympathetic Baron-Cohen makes his character. He is eager to please, eager to learn, and presumes the best of almost everyone he meets. Without wishing to give away too much plot, Borat has an emotional journey in this film that is really quite touching. Like Will Ferrell in Old School, Baron-Cohen gives a no-holds barred comedic performance peppered with occasional mellow, introspective moments that suggest an eventual Jim Carrey-esque foray into "proper" acting and raise the film to a higher level.
It would still be arguable that despite not having racist intentions, Baron-Cohen could still be inspiring racism by delivering an all new ethnic stereotype of the Eastern European who carries chickens around in a suitcase and lives in a shed and fucks his sister. I doubt that any anti-Kazakh feeling at all has been stirred by the film, and if the Kazakh Government still feels compelled to educate the world as to its forward-thinking society, then what harm has really been done?
The film, of course, lives or dies by its central performance. I'm usually more a fan of ensemble comedies, finding it tiring to laugh at one person for an entire film. But Baron-Cohen is as versatile and exuberantly silly as Steve Martin in his best films (namely The Jerk, Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid and The Man With Two Brains, but also Father Of The Bride and that one where Lily Tomlin lives inside his head if I'm off my face) and the 90-odd minutes feels like half that.
This is a bit of a serious-face article about a great comedy film, but it'd be awful of me to ruin any part of the film apart from the crap i-Pod joke at the end. But I'm not even going to ruin that.
Borat is as good as Sergeant Peppers, Coca Cola, sunny days, blow jobs, champagne, baby animals, spooning and "Metal Guru" by T-Rex. If you don't like it, you are wrong, and you can't be trusted.