Sunday, November 05, 2006

Borat: Cultural Learnings of America etc. (Larry Charles, 2006, B+)

*minor spoilers ahead*

Laughed hard and had a great time. Probably the funniest movie I’ve seen since Team America: World Police. Not the funniest movie ever (get over the hyperbole Entertainment Weekly, seriously), but definitely one of the funniest movies of the last ten or fifteen years. Baron Cohen’s performance is hysterical, and the Borat character is both revolting and pitiable. My favorite part of the Borat shtick is the over-the-top anti-Semitism that completely sends up the ridiculous, illogical, ignorant, and disgusting views of real anti-Semites. I’m reminded of the great comedic masters like Lubitsch and Chaplin who used their films to send up the Nazis and their hateful ideology. Baron Cohen exposes anti-Semitism for the evil it is, all in the guise of gross-out humor.

I’m less impressed with the film’s so-called expose on America’s dark underbelly. Mostly I learned three (not-very-shocking) things about America: 1.) There are old hicks out there who hate gay people; 2.) Frat boys are idiots; and 3.) Americans are nice to a fault, afraid of confrontation in almost all circumstances (except New Yorkers, who can *shockingly* be angry and rude). Frankly, none of this is surprising or really all that insightful. I’m more surprised by how well Americans in general come off in the film. The driving instructor and the etiquette lady both have a lot of patience with Borat, the politicians don’t say anything even remotely controversial, and the dinner party people put up with a lot of crazy shit that I probably would have been a lot less patient about. Yeah, the one lady was pretty condescending, but she fricking went into the bathroom with Borat and should him how to wipe himself! Talk about being a gracious host. I also noticed that when Borat told the crowd at the rodeo that he hoped George Bush would drink the blood of the Iraqis, most of the people in the crowd behind him were standing there motionless, obviously not cheering, though the soundtrack had the crowd yelping and cheering enthusiastically. Deceptive sound editing on the part of the production? In my opinion, quite possibly, because the crowd grows less and less enthusiastic as Borat’s rant continues. By the end they appear suitably appalled, and I have to say, not at all like the ignorant, bloodthirsty, warmongers that seem to be the typical stereotype of conservative Southerners. From the way the previews showed it, I expected the crowd to cheer all of Borat’s speech, but they eventually caught on to the nature of his comments and were not supportive. I also have a theory that guys like the gun shop owner and the car dealer ignored Borat’s questions about killing Jews and Gypsies probably because Borat was foreign and they chalked up his questions to some form of misunderstanding (many people have difficulty understanding people with accents, and instead of asking for clarification and possibly risking embarrassment, they just ignore the comment as if they understood it). Am I making excuses for these guys? Maybe, but even if they understood Borat completely and had no problem with it, I’m not exactly shocked to find out that one car salesman and one gun dealer aren’t exactly upstanding moral citizens. Maybe if the film had a montage of gun dealers not batting an eye at Borat’s query for a Jew-killin gun I’d be more impressed. As it is, not so much. All this talk about the great social commentary of this movie just seems like a lot of wishful thinking to me.

But, dang, is it funny. This movie is really, really, ridiculously funny. People next to me in the theater almost literally started rolling on the floor with laughter. I’m ashamed to say it (my good taste cred is at this point seriously nil), but I couldn’t stop laughing at the naked wrestling of two ugly, hairy men. It was the most absurd moment in comedy this year, or maybe ever. It was gross. I loved it.

I also loved the simple, old-fashioned jokes, like the moment when Borat, in frustration, throws his bag onto the ground and we hear the annoyed cluck of his chicken, which has been residing in Borat’s bag throughout the trip. Or the little throwaway moment when Borat’s producer, Azamat, dressed as Oliver Hardy, tells Borat: “Well, this is another fine mess you’ve gotten me into.” Unfortunately, I’m not sure how many people in my theater caught this joke. Both are indications that Baron Cohen is a real comedy writer, not just a guy who throws gross stuff up at the screen in the hopes that people will laugh. He’s that too, but he’s smarter than the average gross-out writer, willing to get laughs that are both low-key and clever, as well as disgusting and ridiculous.

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