Monday, November 27, 2006

Borat (2006)

While press, and box office, for Borat has been very good so far, there are critics (and people who don't get paid for their opinions) out there who call the movie offensive, anti-semitic, and (un)humorous at the expense of people who are tricked into exposing themselves as bigots by an ostensible idiot reporting for Kazahkstan.

I have to say that those people really don't get it.

Borat, if you don't know already, is the creation of Sacha Baron Cohen; previously introduced on his HBO series Da Ali G Show. A bigoted, sexist, racist bumpkin, Borat interviews real people in America about issues such as homosexuality, slavery, manners, women drivers, and especially Jews. Baron Cohen has perfected his act to such an degree that by the time his target figures out something's up, it's too late; the release has been signed, the damning comments made. So it's understandable that people who've been caught on tape, and aired across the country, as espousing anti-Muslim, anti-gay views feel betrayed.

But this film's primary target isn't the people Borat ambushes, or even America as a whole. The feminists Borat offends don't come off as idiots. The black kids he meets on the street do their best to help a hapless white guy who wants to figure out their culture. The southern dinner party guests deal kindly with the ignorant sot until he hands his hostess a bag of feces and invites a prostitute over as his date. Even his overweight cohort, though displayed rolling around naked for about ten minutes, comes off mostly as a really good sport.

No, what Borat does is make his audience extremely uncomfortable by confronting us with some unpleasant truths about what we're willing to put up with. These people aren't so much set up and shot down as damned for not doing anything at all. When Borat goes into a store and asks what kind of gun is best for shooting Jews, shouldn't the owner call him on that? When Borat expresses disbelief in the concept of women having their choice whether to engage in sexual activity or not, shouldn't that elicit more than an uncomfortable chuckle?

To my mind, what Baron Cohen does is not in itself racist, sexist, or even anti-American. It's less about what he says and more about the reaction he gets (or doesn't) from the regular people he encounters. For me, this reaction is most clearly encapsulated in two reactions: one from the dinner party guests who, with Borat out of the room, tell each other he's just a little uneducated and shouldn't be long in assimilating; and when the owner of a rodeo tells him he should shave off his mustache to look less “like them.” One could argue that the betrayal felt by these people is a lesson in giving the “other” the benefit of the doubt, but I would argue that it's still an illustration of treating people who don't sound or act like us as something alien.

In the end, though, what's really impressive about this film is its relentlessly upsetting comedy. It bludgeons you with Borat's adventures, made all the more mind-boggling by the mental somersaults you're forced to do to decide what's a “real” encounter and what must be a set-up. To his credit, Baron Cohen seems to have improv'd most of the film, and his ability to stay in character is tremendous. I don't know what he'll do now that he's been irrevocably exposed, but Borat the movie is a hilarious, offensive, and weirdly informative look at the American hunger for media.

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