Thursday, December 21, 2006

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

You've got to love that title. And really, you've got to love this movie. For once folks, I may break my own rule here by talking about bits from this movie, so if you haven't seen Borat yet, go now, while it's still in the cinema!! You'll have to wait two months otherwise!!

Borat has crashed onto cinema screens at a time when comedy was really in need of something fresh. 'The Wedding Crashers' was possibly the best comedy of 2005, and oh lordy, that says a lot. 2006 has been a little better, but the two best comedies of the year for me so far have one man in common: Sacha Baron Cohen. This name is now associated with big fat dollar signs in hollywood, and with good reason. Talladega Nights was Will Ferrell's baby, and a massive hit, but Cohen was a scene-stealer in that movie. 'Borat' is now that mythical being most comic actors (unless you're Jim Carrey, Will Ferrell or Ben Stiller) generally only aspire to: a $100 million dollar picture. DVD sales will probably double that amount, so you can expect to see Cohen loitering with intent around Hollywood for a little while yet.

Amid rumours of an Best Actor Oscar Nomination for Sacha Baron Cohen, I thought I should finally drag my lazy ass to the picture-house to see Borat, and although I watched it in the company of perhaps only twelve other cinema-goers, I could get a feel for the effect this movie was having on audiences. Everyone there reacted viscerally to the images on screen in front of their eyes.. when their eyes weren't covered that is!

In many respects, Borat is something of a redemption for Cohen, as his initial foray onto the big screen with Borat, in the lamentably awful 'Ali G in Da House' didn't live up to the expectations generated by the successful television show. As I've mentioned previously though, failure can be a great motivator, and Cohen has picked himself up, dusted himself down and produced a comedy of a quality that, in my book, hasn't been seen on cinema screens for a few years.

The guile of Cohen's creation is extremely duplicitous, as Borat appears initially to be such an innocent. His nationality is unimportant, but perhaps it was useful for Cohen to pick a country most people in the U.S. would have had little or no knowledge of. However, Borat's behaviour is so foreign, and his slightly off-colour English so amusing, that he becomes instantly disarming to the people he meets, and this allows his interviewees to immediately feel culturally superior to him. Borat's apparent innocence reveals character traits in people that they may not have been aware of, and manages to make them voice beliefs of which they may not have previously been conscious. This is Cohen's evil genius at work. By asking simple questions about his interviewees basic behaviour, and why things are the way they are in the U.S. and A, Borat elicits responses that are possibly more revealing about his interviewees than they would like to admit! Perhaps this explains the amount of litigation that the movie has attracted, from people who were paid, say, $500 to appear in a little movie playing themselves! I doubt they ever expected the finished product to end up looking like this!

Also, as to the physical humour on show in Borat - and there is a lot on show at times! - don't be fooled by the crap in the plastic bag being simply a toilet gag. What Cohen is aiming for is a test of the limits of how nice his party hostess can be, and she does admirably well, despite the massive pressure of explaining to a six foot six Kazakhstani oaf in a small toilet "how one wipes one's behind".. this is priceless stuff.

However, it is when Borat helps uncover the less attractive side of people that the awkward comedy of the 'car-crash' variety is really generated. His questioning of a car and gun salesman would have most people telling him to sling his hook, but they hardly blink, focussed instead on the sale they're about to make, and perhaps remembering the story 'for the guys' later. These are instances of politeness perhaps going a little far, in that Borat is so outlandishly weird to American beliefs, that he becomes little more than a caricature of something 'foreign'. His encounter with a southern gentleman at a rodeo raises eyebrows in particular, as the man's deep-seated prejudices simply vent forth, packaged with a smile and a southern twang.

The gatecrashing of the mortage broker's conference is worth the admission price of Borat alone, and you will not see this scene coming. I really did think something around my stomach area was going to burst I was laughing so much.

As to the script, well, it's very coherent and not simply a smattering of set-pieces hastily cut together to make an 80-minute slap-stick vehicle. Borat has a beginning, a middle and an end, with vital moments in the movie continually providing turning points for the central character. He learns along the way - despite his appearance of an imbecile! - and because he is motivated by simple things, love, learning and the fear of loneliness, we can relate to his mission. Also, because of his truly foreign attitudes and behaviour, we never really see Borat as a bad guy, even when his wife passes away. (High five!)

And in the middle of all the belly laughs are some genuinely nice moments, ones which are not really played for laughs. You'll know the ones I mean, after gatecrashing the broker's conference, and after getting kicked out of the 'etiquette' party. Despite these heart-warming moments though, Borat goes through the ringer in this movie, make no mistake!

Leaving the cinema, I knew I had missed parts of the movie, not because I wasn't paying attention, but because I was literally covering my eyes. The humour in Borat literally grabs you, and while other movies make you laugh, this one will evoke many emotions at once: disgust, disbelief, shock, surprise, awe, but mostly just pure enjoyment. So, I was left with the feeling of needing to see it again, and for me, this is a rare and great feeling for a movie to generate. I associate this feeling with some of the movies I'm really attached to: 'Twelve Monkeys', 'Pi', '28 Days Later' and 'Seven', among others. (What can I say, I like movies with numbers in the titles!)

However, my favourite comedies are the ones I can watch when I need to be cheered up, or simply when I want to have a good belly laugh: 'SouthPark', 'Airplane!', 'Napoleon Dynamite' and Monty Python's 'Holy Grail' to name the few that spring to mind most readily. I would have no hesitation in putting Borat in the same category as these, and would heartily recommend it as an intelligent, boundary-pushing comedy to make you laugh and cringe in equal measure. No, actually scrach that, you'll laugh more than you'll cringe.. I think!

So.. I liked it, can you tell!? But the real question we should now be asking about Borat is: will it stand the test of time? In five, ten or twenty years time, will we be talking about Borat in the same terms as other classic and enduring comedies such as 'Blazing Saddles', 'Trading Places', 'This is Spinal Tap', 'Airplane!' or, dare I say it, 'The Life of Brian'? Well, in my opinion, for however much it counts, I believe Borat will withstand the rigours or time, repeated viewings, and the verbose analysis provided by idiots like me. Put it this way folks, 'Shaun of the Dead' still makes it onto british film critics 'top 50' lists. For me that was an good comedy.. but not great, not.. 'Spinal Tap', and definitely not as good as 'Borat'.

The verdict: Great success, high five etc etc. A seriously good comedy with brains, balls, belly laughs and a heart to boot. Thank you Borat, and chin quee.
The Rating: 9/10

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