Monday, November 06, 2006

Hype Is To Believing

When shown an early cut of "Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan," George Meyer, a producer for "The Simpsons" and perhaps that show's keenest mind, said, ''I feel like someone just played me 'Sgt. Pepper's' for the first time.''

Normally, I wait to see a film or show that is being hailed before I lean in any appreciative direction. But Meyer's endorsement of "Borat," along with similar takes I've heard on the comedy grapevine, heightened my anticipation. If these comedic talents that I respect liked Sacha Baron Cohen's new film that much, then I knew I would as well. And after watching "Borat" over the weekend, I do. Intensely so.

"Borat" is one of the funniest and most disturbing films I've ever seen. Not since Tom Green's "Freddy Got Fingered" have I laughed so hard and wept so openly. In Green's case, I was floored by the sheer audacity and extreme absurdity of the comedy. I simply couldn't believe what I was seeing, and that released the floodgates. Fortunately for me (but not for Green), there were maybe 12 people in the theater that day, so my near-breakdown could be viewed as the raving of an isolated lunatic. The theater showing "Borat," however, was sold out, so at first I felt inhibited about letting go. But after about 20 minutes, I couldn't suppress my emotions any longer, nor wanted to, and from that point on my heaving lungs, watery eyes, and jangled senses fully defined me. I was completely in Borat's hands. But then, so was the rest of the audience.

I don't mean to over-praise something that's already getting tremendous press. This is simply an honest appraisal. And as I type this, I'm still laughing to myself.

I was not a big fan of Baron Cohen's "Da Ali G Show" on HBO. I felt that the joke about a fake interviewer was played out very quickly. I did enjoy and recognize Baron Cohen's first-rate talent as a comic actor, and my appreciation deepened when I first saw the Borat in America segments. While Ali G and Borat did essentially the same thing -- ask ridiculous questions of unsuspecting targets -- it was the Borat character that took this comic device to another level. Ali G maintained a cool distance from his guests, affecting a hip-hop pose that was essentially narcissistic. Borat, on the other hand, got down with those he spoke to, hugging, kissing, laughing, dancing, as open as anyone could possibly be with strangers, and then some. To me, Borat was more human, and hence, more believable. Even his more cartoonish behavior seemed somewhat "normal," owing to Baron Cohen's acting gifts and commitment to character. Borat's relentless openness made it easier for others to let their ids surface. And that's when the satiric point to Borat's coaxing was fully made.

In his film (directed by the great Larry Charles of "Fridays"/"Seinfeld"/"Curb Your Enthusiasm" fame), Baron Cohen recreates some of Borat's better moments from "Da Ali G Show," which on a larger canvas are fresher comedically and fuller in exposition. You get a better idea of who Borat is and why he acts as he does. And though he casually expresses some of the vilest racist, sexist, queer-phobic, and anti-Semitic stereotypes and slanders, there's actually a sweet side to Borat, primarily when it comes to the love of his life, Pamela Anderson. This is shown in a number of scenes, most effectively when Borat has hitched a ride with a trio of drunken, Southern frat-boys cruising in a camper. After explaining to his new-found friends that he plans to marry Anderson and take her virginity, Borat pulls out of his bag the infamous amateur porn DVD showing Anderson and Tommy Lee going at it on a boat. As the DVD plays, Borat sees that the object of his affection is not what he imagines her to be, and he is crushed. What's amazing in this scene is that just moments earlier, we get a full dose of racism and Jew-hatred from one of the frat boys, along with the general misogyny shared by his brothers. What is sickening and crass suddenly becomes moving, as Baron Cohen is able to shift the scene's mood in an instant. The frat boys try their best to comfort Borat, offering him sexist advice, of course, but showing a humane side of themselves. Borat cannot be soothed, however, and is dropped off on the side of the road to ponder his pain and future plans, if any.

This is but one fine scene among many. I can't go into them all, but trust me when I tell you that for an hour and 24 minute film, "Borat" is densely packed with observational and provocative comedy, running the spectrum from social and political satire to the roughest, and in one case, hairiest slapstick. At its best, "Borat" exposes the foul beasts that lurk just beneath the average American psyche, and shows, quite easily, how uncivilized and violent we really are. That may not be a news flash to many of you (nor to me), but watching the scene when Borat tells a rodeo crowd that his native land of Kazakhstan supports America's "war of terror" and that he hopes that our "Premier Warlord George Walter Bush" drinks the blood of every man, woman and child in Iraq to the applause and cheers of the flag-draped crowd, the realization that a chunk of America is out of its fucking mind is made immediate. You laugh, but from sadness, anger and fear, not joy. And there are many more laughs like that throughout the film.

There has been criticism of Baron Cohen's use of Kazakhstan as Borat's home country. Not only is the Kazakhstan government appalled by Borat's existence, but some who are not Kazakh appear uncomfortable about laughing at a crazy, primitive foreign caricature. Of course, ethnic comedy is nothing new; and performers like Bill Dana and Andy Kaufman enjoyed considerable success pretending to be clueless immigrants. But Dana's Jose Jimenez offered little in the way of social commentary, while Kaufman's Foreign Man, who hailed from a fictional homeland, was originally played as a club comic who just got off the boat that morning, and tried to make Americans laugh with broken English and wide, innocent expressions. Kaufman's character went in several directions: one, as a pitiful performer who loses his way in mid-act and tries to win back the audience through pleading and crying; two, as an incredibly bad impressionist, which served as a set-up to Kaufman's killer Elvis Presley; three, and most profitably, as Latka Gravas on the ABC sitcom "Taxi". Kaufman hated this show, but the money he made allowed him to finance his more avant garde projects. Still, as textured as Kaufman's character was, he didn't push societal buttons. Foreign Man was performance art, as apolitical as Kaufman himself.

Sacha Baron Cohen, however, has a different agenda, and through Borat he pretty much achieves it. Borat could come from any Baltic or Near East country, and in Baron Cohen's able hands, the results would be the same. His being from Kazakhstan has less to do with that actual country, and more to do with exposing the geographical ignorance of those Americans Borat meets. It's the open salvo from his comedy arsenal, one that may come close to killing you with laughter.