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Cohen's 'documentary' a funny effort

By Lady Liberty
web posted November 13, 2006

Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan

** 1/2 out of ****

BoratLast weekend, I had the chance to see Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan. Well, not really. My girlfriend and I pointed at a big city theatre marquee and laughed on our way to see Running With Scissors. "Not a chance!" we both agreed. An online acquaintance, seeing my movie review for Running With Scissors, sent me an "innocent" e-mail that said, "What, no Borat?" (It was a joke, to which I responded with my all purpose, "Not a chance!")

So, what's up with this week's review, then? It's simple: I gave up. In the face of positive critical reviews, overwhelmingly favorable audience reviews, incessant discussion on the Bob and Tom Show (a syndicated morning show to which I have a lamentable addiction), and the expansion of Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan into a theatre in my small town, I didn't have the strength to fight against seeing this movie any more. With the fervent hope that nobody I knew saw me buy my ticket or subsequently skulk into the theatre, I sat low in my seat and waited for the lights to dim.

Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan opens with credits to various Kazakhstan production and television studios which are badly — very badly — altered for English speaking audiences. Shortly thereafter, we meet Borat Sagdiyev (comedian Sacha Baron Cohen) who is ostensibly a well known television reporter in Kazakhstan. Literally within moments, he uses his fractured English to introduce his family, his jealous neighbor, and the village rapist.

Borat also gives us a brief overview of his life in Kazakhstan, and acknowledges that his country has its problems. Those problems, he claims, are most notably the economy and the Jews. In an attempt to offer ideas for improvement to his fellow countrymen, Borat and his producer, Azamat Bagatov (Ken Davitian), determine to visit the United States of America. There, they plan to film a documentary highlighting American society, government, and — at least peripherally — its freedoms.

The remainder of the film really is something of a documentary. Cohen, who never for a moment steps out of character, interviews real Americans in New York, Washington DC, and more on his way across the country. Originally slated to film only in New York, Borat convinces Azamat to take to the road. Borat is actually secretly on a quest to meet Pamela Anderson (who, showing she has a wicked sense of humor of her own, plays herself in the film), but he never-the-less takes advantage of every opportunity to do his supposed job on the way.

Borat works because he comes across to most as an entirely naive foreigner who is genuinely interested in hearing any answers his subjects care to give, or insights they might offer. Borat and his producer somehow manage to capture on film (and even more astoundingly get releases from) ordinary Americans ranging from a driving instructor (who shocks Borat with his comments about women), to an etiquette consultant and a hoity-toity dining club, to a sweet couple who own a bed and breakfast, to (believe it or don't) ex-Congressman Bob Barr and perennial conservative candidate, Alan Keyes. There is, of course, much more. And as much as it pains me to say it, almost all of it is genuinely hilarious.

Sacha Baron Cohen developed Borat as a character some time ago as a limited feature of other efforts, mostly television. In Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, he's able to flesh the character out. Many comparable movies (anybody remember the woeful film resulting from taking Saturday Night Live's asexual Pat and attempting a movie around her/him?) have failed because the character — funny in brief snippets — couldn't hold up for longer than that. This isn't so for Borat. He is endlessly naive, and has the enviable talent of getting folks not in the know to fall for that naivité hook, line, and sinker. Their reactions are often even funnier than Borat's antics.

Only two other actors actually play a role in the film. Ken Davitian is wonderful as Borat's producer, and a very, very brave performer as well (you'll see). And Luenell (just one name), who plays a character named Luenell (great casting, eh?) is also shameless and, as a result, awfully funny herself. The remainder of the "cast" is composed of real people, and, whether they intend to be or not, they also prove to be more than a little entertaining.

Sure, there are a few things that go over the edge into the "trying too hard" arena. But in the main, I laughed. I laughed a lot. There are a few scenes some more sensitive viewers may wish to close their eyes during (don't even get me started on the naked wrestling), but I hope they won't. As painful as some visual images may be, those are also some of the most hysterical.

The film is put together as if by an amateur, but that's the point. Frankly, I suspect that only people who really know what they're doing could make a movie appear to be this badly filmed while still making sure we see everything the filmmakers intend us to see. The lighting is often off; the camera angles are often more than that. The edits are obvious. But it all fits in beautifully with the premise and, in fact, makes us inclined to buy in to its "legitimacy."

This is tough for me after everything I've said about Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan in the last two weeks, but here it is: I recommend this film.

POLITICAL NOTES: There's a wonderful speech offered up by Borat at a rodeo. At first, his exhortations in favor of America and its war on terror generate wild applause. But as he gets more and more bloodthirsty, members of the audience become more and more confused and then disgusted. It's a lovely illustration of just how some policies might be viewed by those less inclined to "America: right or wrong!" opinions.

FAMILY SUITABILITY: Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan is rated R for "pervasive strong, crude, and sexual content including graphic nudity and language." That rating is accurate. This is not a movie for young children, or for those teens inclined to imitate what they see on the big (or small, for that matter) screen. It's also not for those who are easily offended (Borat pretty much insults everybody, but aims much of the funniest and most painful humor at Jews — Cohen is himself Jewish — and the mentally handicapped) or for people who find strong language upsetting. But for those older than 16 or so who have an open-minded sense of humor, well, Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan is easily the funniest movie of the year. ESR

Lady Liberty, a senior writer for ESR, is a graphic designer and pro-freedom activist currently residing in the Midwest. More of her writings and other political and educational information is available on her web site, Lady Liberty's Constitution Clearing House, at http://www.ladylibrty.com. E-mail Lady Liberty at ladylibrty@ladylibrty.com.

 

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