Sunday, Oct. 29, 2006
Borat Make Funny Joke On Idiot Americans! High-Five!
Sacha Baron Cohen is either horrible or hysterical. You choose
The giant mustache, the mesh underwear, the car dragged by mules, the wine made of fermented horse urine--sure, it seems as if comedian Sacha Baron Cohen is mocking Kazakhstan. He is not. He's mocking you. After all, you're the idiot who doesn't know where Kazakhstan is or if it's the kind of place where, as Borat claims, there's a "Running of the Jews." And more important, you're the idiot who believes so much in cultural relativism that you'll nod politely when a guy tells you that in his country they keep developmentally disabled people in cages. Or, worse yet, you're the person who tells him it's not a bad idea.
That's Baron Cohen's awesome trick: preying on the fear, fascination and, most of all, patronization of the other--the foreigner, the rapper, the gay guy. For the trick to work, we have to believe that other countries are so inferior, it's plausible that their citizens would wash their faces in the toilet. He's been exploiting this by videotaping the reaction of unsuspecting people to his characters' horrifying behavior since 1998, when he started on England's short-lived The 11 o'Clock Show, and later on HBO's Da Ali G Show. His characters--aspiring rapper Ali G, gay Austrian fashionista Brüno and Borat Sagdiyev, the U.S.-loving Kazakh--get away with astonishing rudeness because people are too weirded out by youth culture, flaming gay guys and foreigners to question them. When one of his guises gets too famous to sucker people into being interviewed, he molds himself into another one. He could be any outsider society avoids by giving a pass--a religious freak, a veteran, an old man. "Ali G played on people's ability to think that young people are so different from them they wouldn't recognize absolute stupidity and the fact that they were being made fun of," says Andrew Newman, a writer and producer on The 11 o'Clock Show. "And now Borat does the same thing but with countries they haven't heard much about."
In his new unscripted film, Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, Baron Cohen takes his interactions with real people and strings them into a plot: a mockumentary about American culture gets sidetracked by a cross-country quest to meet and "make sexy time" with Pamela Anderson. Along the way, the hidden cameras capture a Southern dinner party's dismay with Borat's bathroom habits, and the guests' reaction on the arrival of his date--a black hooker. All the marks are unaware they're being fooled, which is hard to believe, especially when a gun dealer responds to the question "What kind of a gun would you recommend to kill a Jew?" with a nonchalant "I'd recommend a 9-mm or a Glock automatic." (Baron Cohen is Jewish.) The detailed legal releases, which it seems no one ever reads, were presented to people as if they were permission forms for being interviewed by a Kazakh TV show.
There hasn't been a comedy this edgy in a long time. And there certainly hasn't been one that the comedy élite is this excited by. After seeing an early screening, Curb Your Enthusiasm creator Larry David jokingly asked Borat director Larry Charles, a friend, to put his name on the movie. Even though many people have not heard of the film--Fox last week reduced the number of screens the movie would be shown on from more than 2,000 to 800 for this weekend's opening--it's being discussed on college campuses everywhere. Which is impressive, since a big part of the marketing campaign has been conducted inadvertently by the government of Kazakhstan. It first threatened legal action against Baron Cohen, then took out a somewhat unsuccessful four-page tourism ad in the New York Times ("The country is home to the world's largest population of wolves"), and finally gave up and invited the comic to visit. Baron Cohen is considering the offer as the ultimate opportunity to conflate his made-up character with reality. "I would absolutely love to go," says Borat director Charles. "Even if we got shot down on the tarmac, it would be a good way to go. That's pretty good bonus material for the DVD."
Charles and his tiny crew were just about that fearless during the making of the film. Baron Cohen was more so. For the two-month shoot, he was in character from early in the morning until night. The crew shot so much footage that Charles is trying to sell the unused parts to HBO as a series. Even when the cops came--which the director says happened at least 50 times--Baron Cohen never dropped character. It's an impressive, perhaps insane, performance: Johnny Knoxville with a sense of humor, Andy Kaufman with a desire to please, Peter Sellers set loose on the public instead of David Niven. "It's like Marlon Brando's performance in On the Waterfront," says Charles. "Before that, everything was stylized, the John Barrymore school. After that, you couldn't act in the old style anymore. I believe that Sacha's performance does the same thing."
At a time when the major TV networks can't figure out what makes people laugh, Baron Cohen, 35, is the leader of a brand of aggressive, cheaply shot street comedy that stretches from the lowbrow Jackass to the more intellectual Stephen Colbert. It's the honesty of real reactions, mixed with the personal risk, that makes kids giggle in discomfort. Picking Kazakhstan, a real country, is part of that Andy Kaufmanesque confrontation, as is Baron Cohen's insistence on doing interviews as Borat. "There's something funny about it being a genuine place," says fellow British comedian David Baddiel, who went to the same private high school and Cambridge a few years before Baron Cohen. "That's what makes Sacha's comedy modern, because if that had been an older comedian, Borat would have been from Stupidlandia or something."
By not even winking at his ruse, Baron Cohen is able to get his interviewees to show their inner selves, and it often isn't pretty. By making misogynistic, racist statements in the friendliest way and asking people to high-five over them, he gets folks to say things they wouldn't if they knew the film was going to be shown in their own country. "Political correctness has led to a more civil society because people with racist attitudes have taken them underground," says Borat producer Jay Roach, who directed Austin Powers and Meet the Parents. "It's a fascinating social experiment to observe this character walking amongst us, revealing this."
Clueless, desperate-to-fit-in, optimistic foreigners are a classic comedy trope--the Clouseaus, Cousin Balkis, Morks, Two Wild and Crazy Guys--because they spotlight the ridiculousness that we accept. When he's at a rodeo, driving the crowd into a frenzy with anti-Iraqi, pro-war cheers, Borat demonstrates how much aggression is intertwined with patriotism. And his attempts to be American pinpoint exactly how the world sees us: garish, violent, nouveau riche, a land of Donald Trumps and 50 Cents.
If Borat does well, it could change comedy in two ways. First, if high-grossing movies can be made with just a video camera and a few guys in a van, the studios might find real competition from every fool with a digital camera and access to YouTube. Second, it might limn the generational divide in the way music used to. Because any normal person over 35 is going to find Borat horrifying. What exactly is funny about being invited to nice people's homes and handing them your feces?
But Charles doesn't look at it like that. "I never felt like we tricked anyone in a cruel way. We gave people a chance to be themselves," he says. Some come out well, and others don't. The difference is that if you're over 35, you think you have the right to keep your regrettable moments private. If you're under 35, you realize that everything is public now. Even if your racist rant were for a show in Kazakhstan, it would be on the Internet anyway. Never trust anyone under 35. Especially if he has a video camera.