For those of you not in on the
joke - as I wasn’t until a USM student friend enlightened me last year
- Sacha Baron Cohen is a British comedian whose TV series aired here
for two seasons on (the apparently fearless) HBO. Cohen’s shtick is to
disguise himself as a minority TV commentator, and to interview
unsuspecting public (and private) figures. Cohen uses his alter-ego’s
apparent prejudices and cluelessness to encourage his victims, as we
must call them, to exhibit their worst narrow-mindedness and
fanaticism, and sometimes just to act stupid. It’s like Candid Camera,
but with a ferocious bite.
Cohen has now assaulted the general public with a
feature film, “Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit
Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan”, which is now playing locally, for
Discriminating Audiences Only. It’s rated “R for pervasive strong crude
and sexual content including graphic nudity, and language”, and I can
only say uhhh, yeah...
The adventure follows Cohen as Borat Sagdiyev, a
commentator for the (we hope entirely spurious) Kazakhstan Network, who
has come to “the US and A” to explore American culture and,
coincidentally, to marry Pamela Anderson. Accompanied by his producer,
Azamat (played by an absolutely fearless Ken Davitian), Borat traverses
the backroads of America interviewing unsuspecting marks, from college
frat boys to Texas antiques dealers to Pentecostal revivalists. The
resulting movie, I must warn you, is frequently outrageous, sometimes
revolting, and also very, very, very, very funny. I saw it over the
weekend with a group of friends, and we were laughing as much as we
were gasping in horror. (One friend said, “I heard it grossed over $24
million on the opening weekend; it probably grossed out at least as
A puzzling thing about the Borat movie, and one of
its charms, is just where the scripted bits leave off and the “real”
bits take over. It’s obvious that there is a fictional element: Borat
and Azamat converse in no known language, and a few characters, such as
the actress Luenell playing a delightful hooker, are in on the joke.
But the interaction with the actors and the actual authentic
interviewees is frequently seamless, as when Luenell shows up at a
dinner party in the Deep South where the hostess is almost completely
convinced that Borat’s social clumsiness is due to Cultural Differences.
Having seen a few episodes of “Da Ali G Show,” where
Cohen asks leading questions in an interview to set people up to make
controversial responses, it becomes apparent that most folks are easily
manipulated, and that it takes very little prompting to elicit their
opinions, no matter how extreme. It hit the news in the past few days
that the South Carolina frat boys that Cohen buddied around with for an
episode are now suing him for damages, claiming that he encouraged them
to make racist, sexist, and demeaning comments. This appears to me to
be disingenuous: as I seem to remember from my college days in the Deep
South, it takes VERY LITTLE encouragement to make frat boys talk like
mindless barbarians. As they say good-by to Borat, one of the guys
says, with drunken pauses, “Don’t let a woman…ever…ever…make you…who
you are.” That’s a nonsense phrase I’ve heard any number of times,
inspired by sour mash whiskey.
The government of the real nation of Khazakstan has
been outraged by some of the movie’s scenes, such as The Running of the
Jew, which is one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen. Khazakhstan
took out a 4-page ad in the New York Times to set the record straight.
Frankly, if Cohen’s satire (he’s an observant Jew) causes people to
re-think their prejudices, then I think it’s all to the good. When
Borat encourages people in the US and A to voice their hatred of Jews
and gay people, he makes us look very closely at ourselves.
Catching where the fiction ends and the real (documentary) film begins
is part of the fun, though I don’t have any idea how the production
company lawyers managed to get releases from the people who were
mercilessly pilloried in a movie that sucker-punches a whole lot of
Something that should be obvious is that this movie
can’t possibly have a sequel, because Sacha Baron Cohen has blown his
cover, and everybody in the country will be on the lookout for Borat
from now on.
But we shouldn’t underestimate this guy, because we
can still be blind-sided by Ali G, the white Brit rapper, and Brüno,
the gay Viennese fashion maven.