Sunday, 11 March 2007

Borat (2006)


Comedy films and I don't generally get on. Hollywood's definition of comedy seems to require hiring loud, obnoxious, over-gurning stereotypes to perform very bad slap-stick rather than go to all the bother of writing something that's funny, like an actual joke.

Anybody who's seen anything with Jack Black, Will Ferrell, Ben Stiller or the coterie of usual Saturday Night Live American TV show suspects will know what I mean.

The British variant, as epitomised by the likes of the spectacularly laughter-free Hot Fuzz, may be more subtle - its proponents would argue 'more sophisticated', although I fail to see how endlessly reprising other people's film work is in any way 'sophisticated'! - but also fails to make me laugh.

The problem is that I like my comedy to have actual jokes - something with a (Oh! My! God! How "old school" is that Ian Smith fellah!) PUNCH LINE at the end of it. Is it really too much to expect something which shows just a smidgeon of wit and intelligence when it comes to 'comedy' movies? Monty Python were able to do it, as was Airplane, so am I really asking for the impossible here? Apparently so!

My expectations for Borat, having over-dosed on the 'one joke' performances of the central character on his creator's Ali G TV show, were very low. They weren't helped by the publicity for the film around the time of its original theatrical release last year. Respectable TV chat shows broke all the rules by letting Cohen appear 'in character', getting away with peddling the same, identical, tired 'stand-up' routine ('You want see pictures of my sister?') that had already been trotted around all the US chat shows. Even mildly amusing material, no matter how deliberately outrageous, becomes spectacularly unfunny when you've seen it three times in a row in the space of mere days, no matter how clever the chat show 'interviewer' feeding the comedian his lines might be in giving the impression that it's all very clever, spontaneously improvised stuff.

Borat screencap

Cohen's humour, as previously evidenced by his seemingly endless TV shows, consists almost entirely of making people - ideally, FAMOUS people - look stupid. It's a mean sense of humour that encourages you to laugh AT people, rather than WITH them. As such, it's the sort of humour I normally studiously avoid. It has all the wit and sophistication of a bully in a school playground.

Racist or homophobic pronouncements, which people put into artificial pressurised situations find themselves unprepared to disagree with, are justified by Cohen's fans as being a 'clever' joke at the expense of racism and homophobia. Such fans will rush to point out that Cohen's most vicious 'jokes' are aimed at Jews, despite the fact that Cohen is a Jew himself, as if somehow that made everything alright. It's like the homophobe who tries to defend his bigotry by saying 'But some of my friends are gay', as if that meant his remarks were somehow less offensive as a result.

If you really push Cohen's defenders they'll pontificate endlessly about how he studied racism at Oxbridge, wrote intelligent papers on the subject, and that his work is not about comedy at all but is in fact a very clever ongoing work where he's actively demonstrating the hypocrisy of society and its bigoted attitudes. Sorry, I don't buy it. Offensive words are offensive words, no matter who's saying them. Period. Unfortunately, some people are stupid and can be easily manipulated, and there's something very unsettling about being sat in a theatre with a bunch of people who've been co-erced into laughing at the Jews, the Queers, or whatever other minority group you want to lay into, with some sort of suggestion that this is somehow very clever 'ironic' humour.

To me it seems that Cohen is having his cake AND eating it, trotting out racist, homophobic 'humour', earning a fortune in the process, whilst claiming to represent the views of all those against such bigotry. It doesn't wash!

Borat screencap

Borat's starting point is based on Western Society's own bigoted perception of a third world country's culture, in this case Kazakhstan. Playing to every third-world cliché that exists Cohen takes on the role of a Kazakhstan reporter, the Borat of the title, traveling to America for the first time to make a documentary. The paper-thin plot, which is merely an excuse to hang extended versions of Cohen's previous TV sketches on, is that Borat catches an episode of Baywatch on the TV, falls in love with Pamela Anderson, and determines to travel to California to marry her. On the way he has various adventures as he encounters various disparate groups of Americans which he either interviews, or is interviewed by, in 'on the hoof' improvisational comedy that demonstrate that (a) he has balls of steel and (b) he is an incredible actor.

The surprising thing is that, despite all my reservations about the comic, Cohen has made a very funny film. I laughed! I laughed a lot! Certainly not as much as the ridiculous Empire magazine journalist who gave it five stars (anybody remember a time when an Empire review meant a proper review and not ridiculous guff like 'So funny it'll burst half the blood vessels in your face'?!), but a lot.

Borat screencap

Part of the reason I laughed so much is that this time around, Cohen is not so mean to his victims. It's either that or the fact that those chosen as his victims acquit themselves with slightly more honour than one might expect, paricularly given the artificial peer-pressure situations they're put into. Most of the laughter, and the improvement in quality since his TV show days, appears to be down to the way Cohen's honed his act, coupled with the fact that he is totally fearless in his determination to get to get to the punch line and to make it as big and broad as possible. The traditional, rather predictable 'jokes' are present and correct (a long deep-throated kiss with an attractive girl before her introduction as 'my sister', the 'wife' who looks like a male Russian body builder in drag etc) but it's the scenes with unpredictable members of the public that have the most laughs, with some loveable characters emerging, like the driving instructor, whose natural good cheer and philosophy seem able to cope with anything that Cohen throws at him, no matter how outrageously his Borat character behaves.

In one early scene Borat annoys the hell out of busy New York tube passengers on their way to work, over-playing the role as a friendly, enthusiastic foreigner who wants to introduce himself to everyone by hugging and kissing them on both cheeks, to such an extent that they are convinced they are in the presence of a nutter. Apparently reeking of body odour in his less than fresh 'third world' suit, this is uncomfortable to watch as violence seems seconds away and the angry response from a city not exactly renowned for its politeness and kindness to strangers makes for amusing viewing for those 'in' on the joke. But Cohen takes the whole 'joke' one step further by not taking the safe route of trying to calm down the atmosphere of violence, artificially stumbling so that his small briefcase clacks open with its contents, which include a live chicken, flying around the cramped passenger cart and its occupants in a pay-off that had me rolling around on the floor with laughter. Whether I was laughing at the sheer audacity of the man, the way the scene represented every clichéd caricature of how a third world visitor might react, or the reactions of the passengers not in on the joke is hard to say, but the important thing is I laughed, and that rarely happens with movies for me.

Borat screencap

Cohen is notoriously secretive about his real-life persona, which is understandable given the number of law suits that have arisen from those unwittingly included in the film, and the salaciousness of some of the characters he interacts with, some of whom make what appear to be quite serious threats to his life. As a result there is no commentary track, which is a huge disappointment since Cohen could perhaps have silenced critics like me who question his whole agenda, by explaining precisely what it is. I guess, given the huge financial success of this film, that agenda is a cash cow that he's not prepared to slaughter quite yet.

As a result the only 'extra' included is 30 minutes of deleted scenes, but these are in many cases as funny as, if not funnier than, scenes that have been included in the film. And there are some real American heroes included in these scenes too. The masseur who turned up to Borat's hotel room and coped with Borat's endless exhortations to give him hand relief, with Borat sporting a very obvious erection under a towel during the massage, deserves a medal for customer service politeness when placed in an impossible situation, in an age where phrases like 'good customer service' have come to be oxymorons. Another scene, featuring a puppy farm owner faced with a potential buyer who unwittingly reveals he is searching for an animal to cook, shows that not all Americans are as mean, stupid or caricatured as some of those that appear in the main feature have been. Alarmingly, one of the extra's shows a genuine TV broadcast where an offensive rodeo owner who has previously been the butt of one of Borat's jokes is interviewed by an American TV station the day after the event. Those, like myself, who think that the Borat participants may have been unfairly manipulated into giving an inaccurate, and unfair impression of themselves are in for a rude awakening when they see how much scarier some of these people are in real life!

Against all expectations I enjoyed Borat far more than I thought I would. The film is a huge improvement on the character's previous appearances on TV shows, and, against all the odds, works as a self-contained film in its own right. The DVD is well presented in a cardboard slipcase and some genuinely funny extra's. Highly recommended for rental, and certainly recommended as a purchase if you're a Sasha Baron Cohen fan.

Borat screencap

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