Saturday, November 04, 2006

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

2006 may ultimately be remembered as the year of hyperbole. After the mere title of Snakes on a Plane was enough to spark an internet frenzy earlier this year, a new film has now arrived on the scene which has caught the imagination of the cinemagoing public. That film is Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan. Early word on this picture heralds it as a slice of comic genius; a film so funny, and so offensive, it has to be seen to be believed. Borat himself has appeared in an endless stream of newspaper and television interviews, and news networks have run stories on the controversy that has been stirred up by the Kazakhstan government taking offence to their country‘s depiction in the film. All this has served to keep the publicity fires burning nicely, but can any film really live up to this level of expectation?

Borat certainly can’t. It’s not that the film isn’t funny - it often is - but it’s only intermittently funny, and even with a running time of around 85 minutes this crudely assembled movie has been stretched far beyond its natural length.

Borat is the brainchild of Sacha Baron Cohen, the British comedian who first came to prominence with his Ali G character; a brainless white rapper whose comedy interviews enlivened Channel 4’s dismal The 11 O’Clock Show. Ali G quickly became something of a cultural icon and Baron Cohen was rewarded with a series of his own, a series which necessitated the creation of some new characters. One of those characters was Borat Sagdiyev, an intrepid Kazakh TV reporter determined to learn all he can about western culture, and he proceeded to blunder his way through interviews with unsuspecting members of the public, spouting misogynistic and anti-Semitic views as he did so.

But there is more to Baron Cohen’s shtick than mere clowning. In the process of making offensive comments in his innocent way he often allows his subjects to reveal traces of bigotry themselves; he simply gives them enough rope to hang themselves with. His whole act is an ambush; from the fake production company and release forms which are provided to the ‘victims’, to way Baron Cohen remains completely in character throughout. Occasionally, you get the feeling the people duped by Baron Cohen get what they deserve - like rodeo manager Bobby Rowe, who openly makes racist and homophobic remarks when advising Borat on ways he can fit into American life - but often his antics come across as little more than a cruel, childish prank on people whose only mistake is to be trusting and welcoming to a foreign stranger. How funny you find Borat might depend on how mean-spirited you think Baron Cohen’s humour really is.

In any case, Borat is at least an improvement on Baron Cohen’s last big-screen venture, the appalling 2002 film Ali G Indahouse, and it seems lessons have been learned from that misfire. Instead of trying to place their character into a completely fictional narrative, as they did with Ali G, Borat sticks very closely to the tried-and-trusted fake interview approach which served the character well on TV. There is a storyline here, of sorts, but it’s a thinly sketched affair which only serves as a link between the various sketches. We first meet Borat in his home town of Kusek, where he kisses a blonde woman who he then introduces as his sister (“number four prostitute in all of Kazakhstan”), he shows us the local rapist (“naughty, naughty”, he admonishes), and he presents his monstrous wife, who promises to snap off his cock if he is unfaithful. Borat loves Kazakhstan, but he admits it has many problems - “economic, social and Jew” - and so the government has decided to send him to America to learn lessons which may aid the development of his native land.

With his bear-like producer Azamat (Ken Davitian) in tow he arrives in “US and A”, New York to be precise, and begins his great American adventure. He causes hidden-camera havoc on the underground when he tries to extend greeting kisses to male passengers (many of whom threaten violent retribution), and releases the chicken he had stored in his suitcase. Baron Cohen shows a knack for smaller, more subtle comic touches too, such as mistakenly believing the elevator is his hotel room, or attempting to negotiate the escalator for the first time - and he produces a concentrated hit of anarchic comic energy late in the film when he and his producer engage in a remarkable naked wrestling match - but the real meat of the movie occurs during his many interviews.

These sequences are hit-and-miss, very much dependent on how the subject reacts to Borat’s behaviour, and for the most part they just seem a bit baffled. Humour coach Pat Haggerty smiles politely and tries to deal with the odd situation in front of him in as professional a manner as possible, as does driving instructor Mike Psenicska, but others don’t react as well, such as the feminist group who take umbrage at Borat’s comments on the inferior brain capacity of women. They chastise him before leaving the interview, but he seems nonplussed: “I could not concentrate on what this old man was saying”, he complains.

These scenes are pretty amusing, but they’re nothing new, and they don’t stray far from the territory Baron Cohen already covered in his television appearances. But the bigger canvas he has been presented with here seems to have only given him a bigger appetite for bad-taste gags, and too much of the humour in Borat is derived from a childish desire to shock. The stream of anti-Semitic jokes in the film has been defended by many on the basis that Baron Cohen is himself Jewish, but I still wonder why he feels the need to fill scene after scene with this kind of humour. He opens with a traditional Kazakh festival called ‘The Running of the Jew’, in which a Jewish caricature lays an egg and the local children are invited to smash it before the Jew chick hatches. Later he and Azamat check into a Bed and Breakfast and they fear for their lives when they discover the couple running the house are Jewish. When Borat buys a gun he asks “which one is best for killing Jews?”. At first these scenes provoke laughter, the kind of laughter that springs from surprise and shock as much as anything, but the repetition and predictability quickly palls.

Even worse is the way Baron Cohen treats some of the interviewees who do nothing to deserve his nastiness. Borat is invited to a dinner party at which he is made to feel as welcome as possible even while he makes insulting remarks, but then he returns from the bathroom and presents the female host with a bag of excrement - that’s not funny, it’s simply horrible, and even then she tries to deal with it in as kind and graceful a way as possible. And did Baron Cohen really needs to start pratfalling his way around the antique souvenir shop run by an old couple, smashing items in a tiresome fashion? Is this really the best he can come up with?

The thing is, Sacha Baron Cohen is a gifted comedian, and he could be producing something much better than this. His embodiment of Borat is a wonderful piece of comic acting; he completely invests himself in the character, coming over like an amalgamation of Peter Sellers and Andy Kaufman, and he displays a fair amount of bravery to pull off some of his stunts. The best moments in Borat are the ones where he just improvises his way through a meeting with random members of the public, like the scene in which he happens upon a yard sale and believes the woman of the house to be a gypsy - “Why did you shrink this woman?” he asks, picking up a Barbie doll - but too much of Borat feels lazy and obvious. The scripted sequences in between the sketches are terribly weak and many of the supposedly impromptu scenes have more than a whiff of fabrication about them.

Borat’s final section is painfully poor, involving a dull encounter with some drunk and obnoxious college students and a (probably staged) meeting with Pamela Anderson. This certainly isn't the comedy classic many have claimed it to be and, while I did chuckle occasionally, I generally found it quite unpleasant, smug and tiresome. Sure, it might be fine for a Friday night if you’re looking for a few cheap laughs, but Borat really isn’t worth all the fuss.