Thursday, November 16, 2006

Is nice!

The best Borat segment from Da Ali G Show features the befuddled Kazakh journalist (played by Sacha Baron Cohen) performing at a honkytonk bar in Arizona. As Borat cheerfully sings a song which features the refrain "throw the Jew down the well," the audience claps and sings along, either indifferent to or in support of the song's message. I didn't know whether to laugh or cry, and most of Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan inspires the same feelings. Not only is it riotously funny, it's also a far more insightful examination of contemporary racial and social tensions than Crash.

The film follows Borat Sagdiyev as he travels across the USA making a documentary film for reasons that the title makes clear. One of the most impressive accomplishments of the film is that it transcends its episodic structure to not only find a narrative through-line but also lend us an emotional investment in its main character. Borat catches a rerun of Baywatch on a hotel tv and immediately falls in love with Pamela Anderson; while his wedding plans for Anderson are pathetically misogynistic, there's something endearing about the idea of this character living according to a very specific reality. But then, Cohen is saying the same thing about us - look at how everyone in New York responds to Borat's antics with some variation of "I'm gonna punch you in the fucking balls" (I am now terrified to live in New York). The film mocks our country's most backwards residents - woman-hating frat boys, homophobic cowboys, fundamentalists - while still acknowledging their essential humanity; like Borat, they're just representatives of their villages.

However, I don't think Borat is as pessimistic as many are making it out to be. Borat encounters a lot of people who respond to his foolishness with patience and good humor - the car salesman who patiently explains that Hummers do not literally contain a "pussy magnet" comes to mind. As Pauline Kael said about Nashville, it loves us to much to patronize us. By bringing our bigots and yokels into the spotlight, the film invites us to laugh together at their absurdity; while Borat's targets may not be exceptional, they are by no means the majority (although stuff like this gives me pause). A seemingly endless nude wrestling scene between two men at first provokes our laughter at the blatant homoeroticism, then asks us why it's funny. It's a smart choice that the film never winks at itself; if you don't get the joke, then you are the joke.

But the bottom line with any comedy is whether or not it is funny, and Borat is the funniest movie this year. It takes real genius to create something this blissfully stupid, and director Larry Charles has created a deadpan pseudo-documentary worthy of Frederick Wiseman in its straightfaced depiction of the world it observes. And Cohen deserves all the praise in the world; he completely commits to the Borat's cheerful ignorance, turning a cartoon into a believable character that we root for even as we are horrified by his lack of understanding about anything. The thing that separates the great comedians from the rest is how they are able to react; watch Borat's eyes as he tries in vain to understand a lesson on "not" jokes, and you'll see a vacancy that is equal parts disturbing, hilarious, and recognizably human. If Borat is any indication, Cohen could become the next Peter Sellers. Bring on the Bruno movie.

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