Monday, November 06, 2006

Borat (Charles, 2006)

The most complimentary thing that can probably be said about Sacha Baron Cohen, the man behind the character of Borat - a cultural reporter from an alternate reality Kazakhstan – is that he has the nerve and audacity of the late, great Andy Kaufman. I have no idea how he is able to will his way through the various confrontational situations we see in his most recent film without eventually letting his targets in on the joke or even cracking a smile. When Cohen is going well, this skill works to great advantage. His projected foreignness and his disregard of conventional American etiquette often allow his interviewees to reveal something unexpected about themselves. With Borat as a catalyst, some reveal that an enthusiastic gesture of goodwill from a foreigner is enough to cause them to spew profanities or run away in fear. Others, prompted by Borat’s own biases, feel secure in talking on camera about their distrust of minorities. However, there are also other occasions where, as viewers, we have to wonder whether Cohen’s ability to divorce himself from others’ feelings is really something to be admired.

Over the course of Borat’s 80-plus minutes, we are offered a mixture of mischievous pranks and short mockumentary-style material used to provide the film with a throughline. As one might expect from such a structure, the results are hit-and-miss. There are about three moments in Borat that are sheer gold and several others which are genuinely amusing. However, where Cohen and director Larry Charles fail is in bringing all of their footage together into a film that has a clear purpose or, at the very least, a consistent point of view. The story of Borat becomes not the story of a pseudo-Muslim reporter let loose in a Christian nation, but rather the story of Sacha Baron Cohen’s personality. What situation is too dangerous for him to place himself into? Why is he willing to subject himself to extreme discomfort and humiliation in the name of a moderately funny joke? What does he feel that he is ultimately accomplishing?

When Cohen’s stunts work, it is because there is a kind of poetic justice at work. I would argue that Cohen is actually funniest when he is at his most fair. When Borat attends a church service and asks to be saved, we see that his ridiculous contortions are not considered anything out of the ordinary. In moments like this, Cohen has crystallized something that is insightful and revealing. However, it is unfortunate that this oft-funny film builds to a climax that contains what is perhaps Cohen’s lowest and most bewildering moment. While the concept for Borat’s encounter with Pamela Anderson is funny in theory, the reality that we witness is, to be honest, disturbing and borderline cruel. Making the assumption that Anderson was not in on the joke – she’s not that good of an actress – I wondered to myself what she had done to deserve such treatment. To be sure she is aggressively superficial. However, the moment struck me as being poetically out-of-whack. Never mind whether or not such behavior is ethical. It’s not very funny.

And yet, all told, I would recommend Borat. It is an unfocused, often misguided work, and it frequently seems as if Cohen is abusing his unbelievable sense of courage. However, it also displays Cohen’s undeniable charisma, is consistently watchable and is likely to provoke a reaction in the viewer worth analyzing if you are indeed the self-reflective type. It is a film where the high points make the low points worth enduring and where you can safely say you will see and hear things you have not seen and heard before.



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