Izzz Good! High Five!
Sacha Baron Cohen has been perfecting his act as fake Kazakh journalist Borat for a number of years now. Like Cohen’s other two alter-egos, the hip-hop Brit Ali G and uber-fashion guru Bruno, the characters first appeared on British television before making the transition stateside to HBO’s Da Ali G Show in 2004. The show was a hit of sorts, though much of the public is only now receiving an initial dose of Mr. Cohen’s relentless, often (actually usually) bawdy material. All of his characters revolve around the pretense that they are for real, preying on unsuspecting interview targets that fall for the rouse.
Cohen’s first feature film, Ali G Indahouse, was a disappointment, released theatrically overseas in 2002 and going straight to video in the States few years later. The problem with Indahouse was that it took Ali G out of his element, instituting a plot comparable to so many failed Saturday Night Live skits-to-feature translations such as Night at the Roxbury, Ladies Man and too many others to name here. I still thought it had some laughs, but the concept didn’t really work.
Fans of the shows from HBO and beforehand will be happy to learn that Borat: Cultural Learnings of America For Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, as the full title goes, is essentially a feature-length version of the same brilliant black humor they've been enjoying for years. There is a loosely-threaded plot of Borat going to America with his producer Azamat to shoot a documentary, but these are just excuses to jump into Borat’s trademark segments where his duped subjects find themselves the butt of the ultimate joke.
Some segments of Borat are shot in a straightly-scripted, less off-the-cuff manner (basically anything that looks less handheld), such as the film’s opening where Borat takes audiences on a tour of his Kazakhstan home. Although many of these segments are amusing, the truly classic moments come when Cohen’s alter-ego is able to bounce off of another unsuspecting subject. Highlights include a humor coach who tries to explain American humor to Borat, a group of Southern socialites who attempt to teach Borat proper dining techniques, a feminist group and a revealing wrestling match between Borat and Azamat in a hotel.
Cohen keeps the comedy coming at a breakneck pace. The audience I viewed the film with was laughing hysterically and even applauded a certain unforgettable segment, a crowd reaction that could only be compared to the laughing/cringing experienced at Jackass: Number Two a few months ago.
Throughout the insanity, and even as the humor turns to anger or violence (which happens more than a few times in the course of Borat), Cohen never breaks character or laughs at the insanity of the situation. From what I understand, his crew also maintains composure, even as tension mounts, which makes those who are the butt of the joke all the more baffled and incensed.
The buzz on Borat, from fans and critics alike, has built to a feverish degree since its premiere at the Toronto Film Fest in September. With that, the obligatory criticism has also hit Mr. Cohen. Borat often makes comments on the “Jewish devil” (as most know, Cohen is Jewish himself), which occasionally incites his subjects to join in on such anti-Semitic comments. While the Anti-Defamation League and others have commented on Cohen’s antics, it’s clear that there is, in fact, a point to some of Cohen’s work, often exposing racism, sexism and other “isms” in shocking manner.
Other subjects that appear in the film, such as artist Linda Stein, have spoken out against Cohen and the way they were duped into appearing in the film. In an article written by Ms. Stein for “downtown express,” she claims that he is helping to “reinforce the stereotype of women as the inferior sex.” First, if anyone is taking Borat’s words as words of wisdom, well, that is a person already far beyond reprieve. Second, Ms. Stein proves why she was a perfect target for Cohen, failing to get the joke even more than a year later.
What Cohen is doing is nothing new. Andy Kaufman implored similar techniques of guerilla comedy back in the 70’s and The Daily Show’s Stephen Colbert has made a career of it. While Cohen’s humor leans on the black, edgy side of comedy, it is, at the core, all in good fun and aimed at one target: MAKING PEOPLE LAUGH.
Borat pushes the bounds of comedy and some would say the bounds of good taste along with it. So be it. The result is the intended one. Borat is the funniest film of the year. The only ones not laughing are the ones the joke was on in the first place.
What's On the Disc
The first amusing feature you'll notice as you pop the disc in is that the menus themselves are quite well done. They are arranged much like the opening and closing credits for the movie itself, looking like some kind of bizarre foreign bootleg, complete with static sound and visual effects as well as flipping frames and blurry imagery.
Clicking through to the language selection option will highly a vast array of language options, the most intriguing of which is "Hebrew." Clicking here will bring up a warning to Jewish viewers, along with a warning voice saying, "Jew In Vicinity."
Extras are referred to as Surplus Material. It's not a massive collection, but what's here is pretty priceless.
The most exciting extra is a collection of nine deleted scenes from the movie. Although some have already shown up on YouTube and assorted sites, there's a few here I hadn't seen before and all are pretty priceless. Some highlights include Borat's trip to a pound where he tests out a puppy by having the poor pound lady make devil horns with her fingers and instructing the puppy to "attack Jew." Another scene has Borat touring a grocery with an unsuspecting employee. Strolling down the cheese isle, Borat points at every cheese product repeatedly asking, "What's this?" "It's cheese," responds the employee in a disinterested voice... Over and over and over... There's also a montage of some great cut scenes and a sequence where Borat gets a massage in a hotel. Finally, Borat and his cast pay an amusing tribute to his favorite syndicated Beach TV show.
"Propaganda" is a 15 minute-plus montage of Borat's memorable publicity campaign, from appearances on Conan O'Brian and Jay Leno to stunts at the Toronto Film Festival and Cannes. There's some great stuff here.
Cohen does not break character for any of the features on the disc. There's no true "making of" insight or interviews with Sacha Baron Cohen out of character. I'd imagine Fox will cash in on a two disc edition somewhere down the road. Still, this is a highly recommended disc.