Probably once every decade a really great comedy comes along that satirizes and illuminates this American life to such a staggering degree there is nothing to do but laugh and laugh hard. For an entire year, Sacha Baron Cohen has been promoting his “mockumentary,” Borat!: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan with a straight face. He was seen at the Cannes Film Festival in a lime green g-string and caused a ruckus at the Toronto Film Festival.
All of this added up to a lot of talk and a lot of publicity. Borat is one of Cohen’s characters from The Ali G. Show (he also plays hip-hop wanna-be English white black man Ali G.) and anyone who’s seen the show knows that Borat is not a real person. This film, though, documents Borat’s encounters with real Americans who don’t yet know who he is. Cohen got them to sign releases because he said he was making a documentary about his experiences in “The US and A.”
Upon the eve of the film’s release, it was announced that it would be reduced from a couple thousand theaters down to only 837, but in very specific areas where the film would do well. It was either a smart move or a dumb one, but the film had total weekend receipts that were the highest per-screen average on record for a movie shown on less than 1,100 screens.
Borat is one funny film. The story unfolds with Borat introducing his life in Kazakhstan, a little town where “The Jew” is so hated they have “The Running of the Jew.” His sister proudly holds the title of one of the town’s best prostitutes, and he doesn’t much like his wife, and he absolutely hates his neighbor. All the while, Borat delivers one bit of shocking info after another with a beaming smile. It is impossible not to like him.
Once in America, Borat mistakes the elevator for his hotel room and is impressed all the same. He loves America! He loves the George Bush. He seems to think all women are prostitutes. And he loves them! Certainly the character of Borat alone is funny enough. He’s so innocent about life and so idealistic about America; he has bought everything we’ve ever sold about our culture. But really what drives the film towards greatness, and what will make it a landmark achievement for this year and many years to come is how Cohen and film crew managed to get regular Americans to fall for his ruse. Watching their faces go from helpful to horrified to disgusted to angry is what gets the biggest laughs, by a long way.
The way Cohen slyly gets them to falsely believe they are talking to a total innocent and then hits them with something like the way his sister once taunted his mentally disabled (he used a different word) brother about sex until one day the brother “broke out of his cage” and caught the sister. Of course, it’s unbelievably crude and vulgar, but it is funny because these poor people have no idea how to deal with this odd creature Borat.
As he makes his way across the US, in hopes of meeting Pa-mela Anderson (he was love-struck while watching Baywatch), he encounters a full spectrum of Americans; some are nice above and beyond the call, but some are not so nice. Probably the worst of the lot are a group of drunken frat boys who blame “the minorities” and appear to be one tequila shot away from a gang bang on a pool table somewhere. Then there is a gun dealer whom Borat asks what the best guns to kill Jews are – the dealer doesn’t flinch but merely offers up his most sensible options.
Borat is impossible not to like. There is the sense that what he’s saying doesn’t come from a wicked soul but rather from ignorance; that is the way it is “over there.” And looking at us through his eyes is staggering.
A Jew himself, Cohen seems particularly obsessed with Americans who hate Jews. His Borat is so fearful of them he believes they shape shift into cockroaches in the middle of the night and the way to make them go away is to throw dollar bills at them.
It has been too long since anyone thought up something this funny. Cohen now sits with the best of them – Woody Allen, Groucho Marx, John Waters. He has broken new ground and given us something to think about when we wipe the laughing tears from our eyes and walk out of the theater.
Please be warned – this film contains vile and filthy things. Vulgar language, full frontal male nudity and VERY off-color jokes are repeated throughout. It isn’t really appropriate for younger teens or kids.