[15 November 2006]
A sexy-time explosion was felt all around the world this month, as Sacha Baron Cohen’s Borat!: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan arrived in all its long-titled glory. It pummeled its competitors at the box office, and generated more buzz and longer lines than anything this year except possibly The Departed. And it’s no accident. It’s also the funniest movie in quite some time, more than living up to the character’s origins on Da Ali G Show. But what’s so interesting about the comedy is how people interact with it. More than just making us laugh, Borat has become a prism through which we can see just how warped we’ve become, and has revealed a series of rather stupid truths about all of us.
Sadly, it was the actual nation of Kazakhstan that started the avalanche. It’s hard to imagine anyone was actually going to take the movie as a true reflection of the character’s country of origin, so it’s still befuddling that president Nursultan Nazarbayev and the Kazakh government took the result so seriously. The country took out a four-page ad in The New York Times and met with President Bush before banning the movie. My father once told me that many countries would probably take offense to a clothing line being called Banana Republic, but none would express its outrage publicly, because they would first have to admit to being banana republics. In essence, this is what Kazakhstan has done. If nothing else, they have confirmed one of Borat’s many arbitrary facts cited about the country—that it has one of the worst senses of humor in the world.
Yet this is indicative of what Cohen has done to everyone. From Kazakhs to Gypsies to Jews to Southerners, every group has offered up their own Claude Rains-worthy “shocked, shocked!” reaction to Borat somewhere along the line. Sometimes, these groups miss the point completely. Many members of the Jewish community were up in arms when Borat appeared at a country-western bar on Da Ali G Show and sang a song called “Throw the Jew Down the Well,” prompting the unwitting audience to sing along enthusiastically. It was obviously subversive for a man named Cohen to dupe a crowd into clapping along to such a song. But people are all too willing to take offense and miss the humor or even pointed commentary of what’s going on.
With Borat, Cohen has found the perfect mix of Charlie Chaplin and Chris Rock. We laugh as the tramp stumbles comically through America, but also as he plays the straight man to all of us, pulling the curtain aside to reveal the comedy of what’s real, and forcing us to laugh at ourselves and those around us. He weaves between the two so seamlessly that we sometimes don’t notice and aren’t quite sure what’s real and what’s created. That’s part of the fun, too. The most important rule of engagement is to laugh as readily about yourself as you do about others. Like South Park and The Simpsons at their best, Borat spreads the satire to everyone, and if you take offense or take it too seriously, the joke’s on you.
For that reason, I take it as a great point of hometown pride that New Yorkers are portrayed as xenophobic, violent, and perhaps even sociopathic brutes, willing to threaten Borat or run into traffic to avoid him, yet I’ve heard nary a peep about offended New Yorkers. The conventional response seems to be “Well, yeah, of course some of us are.” It’s too bad that the South was presumed unable to take that same attitude about an Alabama dining club that meets in a plantation house on a street called Secession Road. Like the Kazakh government, red state test audiences sent the message that a region full of bigots and nutjobs is just too believable to be funny.
Anyone willing to react to Borat is the exact target for its jokes, both in the movie and afterwards. People have been quick to discuss the effectiveness of internet buzz and Cohen’s in-character media blitz for raising the movie’s profile. That may have helped its initial box office performance, but what really sets the movie apart is how its humor spills into real life after the credits roll. Most great comedies are just quotable. Borat is a self-sustaining statement. Anyone willing to take the movie or themselves seriously enough to take offense is immediately folded into the gag. The joy of laughing at the humorless people who miss the point continues long after you’ve seen the movie.
All of that has shined light not just on the stupidity of the movie’s victims and knee-jerk opponents, but on the bizarre move by Fox to cut its opening weekend release by more than 50 percent just a couple of weeks beforehand. The studio said the movie was “soft in awareness”, but wasn’t that their fault in the first place? The studio had to know the movie was good, so why display anything less than full confidence? Why let there be soft awareness for Cohen’s coming out party after a prominent role in Talladega Nights, the year’s biggest comedy? Most likely, the smaller opening was just a marketing ploy. Come see the movie that’s offensive to racists and so forth.
Hollywood mainstays periodically complain about how hard it is to develop stars these days. Why would Fox mess around with the first major starring role for the most gifted comic actor since a young Eddie Murphy? Either it’s pussyfooting with a risky movie or it’s getting overly fancy with marketing a movie that could have been a hit just on the strength of college students alone (the people that come off worst in the movie, incidentally). Fortunately, the fans made Borat a huge success in its slashed release and sent a resounding “Who cares?” to the self-ordained cultural watchdogs who stood against it. Perhaps studios will be less afraid of promoting movies that aren’t completely neutered. Perhaps a comedy protagonist coming within inches of involuntarily performing analingus is exactly what this country needed.
I’m a great fan of Noel Murray of The Onion AV Club, but I think he missed the point recently when he said that, while a strong comedy, Borat was not the pointed satire and cultural exposé that some wanted it to be. Perhaps that’s true to some degree, and exposing a bit of latent racism in this country certainly isn’t a titanic achievement. But whatever the movie may have lacked in direct social commentary was far overwhelmed in how it brilliantly revealed us—all of us, every group, national or ethnic, and every Hollywood studio—for how thin-skinned and jumpy we are about self-identity, race, sex, and movies. Sacha Baron Cohen has turned the mirror on our collective ridiculousness. Oh, and he did it while making the funniest movie in years. Great success.