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I Think I Smell Borat

November 18, 2006

Borat is an extremely funny movie, but don’t be misled–it’s a rather different breed of comic animal from Da Ali G Show.

Da Ali G Show gets its laughs from the painful tension between Sacha Baron Cohen’s characters and his unwitting subjects. It’s a contest between who’s going to break first: Cohen, who says increasingly offensive, ignorant things while staying in character, or his subjects, whose demeanor of politeness is stretched to its illogical limit. The winner, of course, is always Cohen, who never breaks character (or at least as far as we know from the televised footage).

But Borat the movie mixes that comedy verite with a more traditional brand of staged slapstick. In Da Ali G Show, the only person on film in on the joke is Cohen. In Borat, there are a whole number of scenes where the subjects are in on the set-up: the opening sequence in Kazakhstan, all the interactions Borat has with his Kazakh producer (who is played by an Armenian-American), the bear’s encounter with the kids, the date with the overweight hooker, the grand finale with Pamela Anderson. And there are a number of scenes of questionable veracity: the arrest at the brokers’ banquet, the stop at the “gypsy” flea market, the encounter with the frat boys in the RV. And even those scenes which were not staged often did not happen in the location that the movie says they did.

These are not fatal flaws by any means, and some of the staged stuff is ridiculously funny–notably the Running of the Jew in Kazakhstan and the naked wrestle-off between Borat and his producer–but the mix of staged humor and docu-humor makes it difficult to figure out how you should be watching this. My buddy Tony said it didn’t bother him because he was willing to suspend his disbelief. But the key to the brilliance of Cohen’s humor on Da Ali G Show is that you’re not supposed to suspend your disbelief; it’s funnier because you believe that Pat Buchanan and Boutros Boutros Ghali are his unwitting subjects.

After the whole staged opening sequence in Kazakhstan, it was hard for me to tell if Borat’s antics in New York City were legimitate or not. Certainly, the trio of feminists he interviews–and laughs at when they suggest that women are equal to men–are constitutionally incapable of being on the joke, but I’m not so sure about the pedestrians he chases down on the street who he hopes to greet and hug. Although, none of that detracts from the shock comic value of Borat masturbating to lingerie mannequins or taking a dump next to the sign for Trump Towers.

Many reviewers have talked about Borat as if he exposes Americans’ latent prejudices, but I don’t buy it. Rarely in his skits on Da Ali G Show or in the movie did I detect genuine antisemitism, sexism or homophobia from his subjects; much more often than not, they appear to be playing along with Borat. It’s not that his American subjects are ignorant or bigoted, it’s that they’re too nice to correct a foreigners’ ignorance or bigotry. (If you’ve ever encountered a blatantly racist stranger before, you’ll recognize this response.) Borat doesn’t expose prejudice, he exposes out-of-control politeness.

For me, the best moments in the film are the scenes where he pushes our natural graciousness to its limits: when a well-bred Southern woman teaches him that shit goes in the toilet, not a plastic bag, or his visit to be healed at an Evangelical revival meeting.

While my initial response to the movie’s mix of scripted and unscripted humor was a bit confused, I suspect on repeated viewings that I will become more comfortable with the style and laugh even more than I did the first time. This seems to often happen with comedies. Anchorman, for example, seemed just too stupid to be believed when I first saw it. But when you let yourself go to its insane comic rhythms, you find it’s absolutely hilarious. Borat is already quite hilarious; I can only imagine how funny it will seem after the fourth or fifth viewing.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. November 20, 2006 9:04 pm

    Definitely funnier the second time. I saw it again yesterday.

    Your take on bigotry VS politeness is right on the money. And the scene with the “gypsy” is definitely a fake: You’re going to tell me she just happened to have a copy of that Baywatch/Pamela Anderson magazine? Yeah, right.

    You’re right about none of that mattering much, though: It’s funny as hell.

  2. bro permalink
    November 20, 2006 9:40 pm

    I find it odd that you found one of the highlights to be the revival meeting. For me this was the low point of the movie, it went on and on, and Borat never really commented or reacted to the goings-on. It almost became a straight documentary at that point, and since its not particularly newsworthy or funny that people believe in jesus, speak in tounges, and get “healed” by questionable evangelists, I was mostly just bored.
    Unfortunately, the need for narrative/character development got in the way of the humor, of which there is plenty in the first half.

  3. November 21, 2006 11:53 am

    I agree with everything bro says, but the second half is still pretty funny despite the revival meeting and the intrusive character development. Besides, just the hysterical first half makes it the comedy of the year.

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