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November 14, 2006 > Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan

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

A Movie Review

by Steve Warga

Fans of Sasha Baron Cohen know they’re in for a good time right off the bat in his sleeper hit, Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan. In the opening scene, Cohen’s Third World rube, Borat Sagdiyev, provides a guided tour - with crude commentary - of his foul, impoverished native village. As we enter his filthy backyard a young woman with bleached and permmed hair stands in the background. After introducing his sullen, glowering neighbor, Borat walks over to the young woman and engages in a long and passionate kiss, then another. Gazing lovingly in her eyes for a moment, he then turns to the camera with a big smile and proudly introduces his sister, the “fourth best prostitute” in town.

No … please … wait! I’m … ha-ha-ha … still … oh-ho-ho … laughing! Okay. Phew, that was really funny. And it got even better after that!

If you like your humor, crude and profane, if you still think farting in church is clever comedy, then head to the nearest Borat showing. Only a handful of genuinely funny scenes will disappoint you. In one of them, Cohen pulls off a fine slapstick routine in an antique shop. You know it’s coming as he stands awkwardly in a narrow aisle flanked by racks of antique dishes, vases and lamps begging to be smashed. Cohen delivers with moves worthy of Peter Sellers’ champion prat-faller, Inspector Clouseau. Unfortunately, the truly funny gags comprise only about five of Borat’s 85 minutes of runtime. Whatever your tastes in entertainment, let the buyer beware: the joke may be on you.

Cohen’s decision to take his Da Ali G Show from HBO to the big screen was a wise move, financially. Even in a limited engagement opening the first weekend of November, Borat handily outdrew Tim Allen’s latest Santa Claus spoof (I forget, is this the 15th or 16th sequel?). Cohen’s “mock-u-mentary” was simply a larger version of his HBO hit, liberally dosed with his bread-and-butter gag. This consists of elaborate and sincere attempts to gain the trust of unsuspecting people then applying misdirection to whatever level of crudity the victim will tolerate before snapping, usually in anger. Big surprise. How many of us find humor in being duped and then insulted? (Although one New Yorker displayed considerable common sense by simply turning and running when Cohen singled him out of a street crowd.)

With that toothy, “aw shucks” grin, faux-clumsy gait and horribly mangled English syntax, Cohen successfully disguises his native intelligence, breeding and advanced education. Thus camouflaged, he proceeds to shock everyone he can in every way he can, short of outright genital-grabbing. No, sorry to say there is even some of that, mostly with his obese “producer” played to greasy, slobby perfection by Ken Davitian. If crudity equals humor for you, be sure to catch the lengthy, full-nudity, wrestling match between skinny, hairy Cohen and grossly fat, hairy Davitian. Pure side-splitting laughs, let me tell you.

Unlike the filthy humor in this movie, Union Landing’s Century 25 theater complex presents a clean, orderly venue to patrons. Attractive in a glitzy, Hollywood way, this facility impressed me. Less impressive though was the number of obviously underage patrons at the 5:05 p.m. showing. This movie is rated R, meaning no one under 17 admitted without a parent or guardian (now how would a theater establish guardianship status?). It should be rated NC-17. Yet none of the theater employees bothered to check the IDs of any person buying a ticket or entering the theater.

Okay, I liked the theater, but I didn’t especially like the movie. So there! Mostly though, I can’t help lamenting how often Cohen buries his exceptional comic talent under steaming piles of vulgarity. At his best, he displays deft timing and inspired spontaneity. For instance, when he finally realizes his ambition to travel to California and marry Baywatch babe, Pamela Anderson, it doesn’t go quite as planned. After she escapes the ceremonial sack he throws over her unsuspecting head, she runs screaming from the bookstore where she had been doing autographs. (If Anderson has any talents, acting is certainly not among them. So it’s highly unlikely her panicked reaction was rehearsed.) Yet, even while chasing her through the aisles, Cohen tries to sooth her angst. “Don’t worry,” he implores her, “I’m nervous too!”

Let that be a lesson, movie-goers. If you’re not ready lots of base, so-called potty jokes, you’ll be plenty nervous too throughout Cohen’s movie. And if you’re among the many quasi-sophisticate media types who insist that Cohen’s “gotcha” brand of insults is a brilliant method of “revealing ourselves to ourselves,” you might get a little nervous too when you realize one undeniable fact in all Cohen productions. No matter how unrehearsed the scene, no matter how obviously unscripted the dialogue and non-actor the characters, it’s all being performed in front of a large production crew, complete with professional cameras, lighting and boom microphones. If you think this is “reality” at its best- revealing ourselves to ourselves- then Cohen’s wittiest joke is the one he’s playing on you. Like I said, “Buyer beware.”

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