Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (2006)

We live in an era of political correctness, where everything has to be done or phrased in a certain way to avoid insulting people or hurting their feelings. The fact that we live in such an inoffensive, culturally stifled time makes it all the more surprising that one of the most popular and talked-about movies of 2006 was a movie that blatantly thumbs its nose at political correctness.

Inspired by a character from HBO's cult series Da Ali G Show and boasting a mouthful of a title, Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan wears the term "politically incorrect" like a badge of honor. The movie's concept is that of a typical comedic mockumentary, but it does more than elicit laughter, though it does do that in spades. In its own incredibly crass, irreverent way, it shows us a side of America that the bleeding hearts would rather forget existed: the side that isn't politically correct, and probably never will be.

The film's plot is an extremely simple one. Popular Kazakh television journalist Borat Sagdiev (Sacha Baron Cohen) has been appointed by Kazakhstan's Ministry of Information to film a documentary about life in the United States. With his producer, Azamat Bogatov (Ken Davitian), in tow, Borat leaves the third-world squalor of his hometown and heads for New York City. As he tries to get accustomed to his new, unfamiliar surroundings, Borat stumbles upon a rerun of Baywatch on late-night television. And as can be expected, he's immediately smitten with Pamela Anderson.

Borat is so smitten, in fact, that he wants to head to Los Angeles to make her his "virgin bride." Using the logic that "Pearl Harbor is there... and so is Texas," Borat tries convincing the reluctant Azamat that going to California would be in the best interests of their documentary. Azamat finally relents, and the duo pile into a dilapidated ice cream truck and make their way across the country while documenting their exploits as they go.

And my, what exploits they are. From unknowingly participating in a gay pride parade and stirring up a jingoistic frenzy among a rodeo audience ("May George Bush drink the blood of every man, woman, and child in Iraq!") before almost causing a riot with his rendition of Kazakhstan's national anthem, to fleeing in terror from a bed and breakfast because it's owned by an elderly Jewish couple and catching a ride with three redneck frat boys whose excessive drinking have left them with diarrhea of the mouth and constipation of the brain, Borat sees and does it all. In short, his road trip is dedicated to causing as much lowbrow havoc as possible.

Borat is not going to be a movie that everyone will like. The fact that the film's producers have been sued by just about everybody on the face of the planet is proof enough for that. But the truth of it is that Borat is a movie that the easily offended should avoid at all costs. Nothing is sacred; racism, anti-Semitism, misogyny, organized religion, social status, animal rights activism, the September 11th terrorist attacks, and sex are all touched upon in some form or fashion, along with some scatology, incest, and uncomfortable male nudity. This may sound like a cheap cliché, but the movie has no interest in pushing the envelope; it seeks to beat the envelope half to death before making a dirty joke at the envelope's expense. It is a movie that goes to great lengths to not only offend just about everybody, but to expose the prejudices that are an inert part of most American citizens. And it's probably a more entertaining film for it.

It's really hard to judge Borat on its production. Since the movie is done in the style of a documentary, director Larry Charles doesn't really have to make the movie more than what it is. I mean, I doubt that anyone will be watching Borat expecting groundbreaking cinematography or anything like that. And for me, I thought it was a little tough to judge the Oscar-nominated (!) screenplay — credited to Sacha Baron Cohen, Peter Baynham, Anthony Hines, and Dan Mazer — when one considers just how blurry the line between scripted and unscripted is here. There are moments that are obviously scripted, others that obviously aren't, and ones that could go either way. But it doesn't really matter just how much went into the writing process, because the movie's success does not hinge on writing or direction, but on its star and how he interacts with the unsuspecting people he encounters.

Sacha Baron Cohen is nothing short of hilarious as the title character, showing a crude insensitivity that is almost likable because of his good-natured demeanor in the role. The character is outspokenly prejudiced, but Baron Cohen plays Borat with such a naïveté that it's really hard to believe he's serious. He also plays the role of a sort-of lightning rod, prodding rather non-PC reactions from people. While his "excited foreigner" behavior and his scatological gags draw the appropriate (and hilarious) responses from people, his innocent yet racist/sexist behavior receives responses that have to be seen and heard to be believed. And that's the thing with Borat. His outrageousness is funny enough, but it's the reactions and responses to his antics that truly push the comedy along.

Borat is one of those movies that viewers will either really love or really hate. You'll either want to laugh until it hurts, or want to hurt the people that are laughing. Simple as that. I'm sure Sacha Baron Cohen noticed there was a market for subversive, anti-authority humor out there, because this is a movie that not only mocks political correctness, but also a movie that is a biting satire of how we ignorant Americans perceive the world outside our country's borders.

And while it might not be the funniest movie ever made, as the advertising campaign during Borat's theatrical release may have led you to believe, it's still hilarious if it doesn't offend your sensibilities. Even if you do get offended, that doesn't make the movie less funny (or awkward, as is the case with the naked brawl between Borat and Azamat). So I'm going to give Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan four stars and a high five. Very nice!

Final Rating: ****