Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Birthday Take: Sacha Baron Cohen in "Borat" (2006)

Scene from Borat
Welcome to The Birthday Take, a column dedicated to celebrating Oscar nominees and winners' birthdays by paying tribute to the work that got them noticed. This isn't meant to be an exhaustive retrospective, but more of a highlight of one nominated work that makes them noteworthy. The column will run whenever there is a birthday and will hopefully give a dense exploration of the finest performances and techniques applied to film. So please join me as we blow out the candles and dig into the delicious substance.

The Facts

Recipient: Sacha Baron Cohen
Born: October 13, 1971 (44 years old)
Nomination: Best Adapted Screenplay (nominated) for Borat

The Take

In the realm of comedy, there's nothing quite as divisive or puzzling as that of Sacha Baron Cohen. To those that hate him, he is nothing but a catchphrase-spewing character actor who likes bothering people. To those who defend him, he is a genius of guerrilla comedy, choosing to hide in characters in order to unveil something deeper and more disturbing about the world in which he lives. While he is equally known for Da Ali G Show and Bruno, his legacy came in 2006 with Borat: a film that saw him play a Kazakhstan journalist who comes to America to interview people. The only catch is that he's really racist. In fact, the film is arguably just as offensive as it is insightful to a modern audience.

There's an interesting dynamic in Borat that feels revolutionary in some respects. For starters, it's clearly sketch comedy done in feature film format. There's very little of a story present. It's mostly a chance to interview random people and make them uncomfortable. It's in the mockumentary style, which didn't really have any significant breakthrough since Christopher Guest began making movies. Here, Cohen takes it to the real world and manages to make it just as much about spontaneous reactions as it is about some deeper commentary. Considering that his TV show Da Ali G Show was all about discussing politics in between lowbrow humor, he is a subversive master of his craft. The only catch here is that he added a story in order to keep most of the functions forward.

I understand that for a lot of people, Borat is simply just an obnoxious invention. There's not a lot to really appreciate if you can't get into the foreigner shtick. However, I think that it is Cohen's work condensed into a perfect package of wit and character. What I admire more than the structure of the film is a certain dedication, along the lines of Andy Kaufman, to his character in which the situations may elevate, but Cohen's dedication to character is impeccable. There's few as dedicated as he is. Even if this is a condensed version of his story - there's endless hours of additional footage - it is a reflection of his focus. What's more impressive is that in between all of this, he manages to capture something implicitly flawed about our beliefs. There's scenes in which he's at a rodeo talking to people, discovering that they're secretly homophobic. While Bruno was more confrontational about it, Borat strikes a nice balance between it all.

The one interesting note is that while the Borat phenomenon definitely left a mark, it isn't entirely clear why it was a Best Adapted Screenplay nominee. Was there really a screenplay involved beyond setting up the situation? Cohen is a famous improviser, and it is likely that they shot spontaneously instead of to a point. It's an ambiguous nomination, and one that doesn't entirely make a lot of sense. However, it is very interesting that even The Academy had a soft spot for Borat in 2007. If anything, it sort of validates the whole experience as being more than some sheepish entertainment. Even if the appeal of Cohen would die down rapidly in the years to come, becoming more of a punchline than an icon, there's no denying the impact that the character had and its ability to find new ways to do comedy with a bite.

Is Cohen a genius? I personally think so. His characters definitely brought something exciting to the comedy landscape during his height. Even if he has tapered off in recent years, I do think that he remains as interesting as ever. He's evolved to be a character actor that is equally eccentric, but in a scripted landscape. Is it as interesting? Not for those who found Borat annoying. His work for me however is rather intriguing, notably in Sweeney Todd and Les Miserables, where he added musical theatricality to his shtick. He may have trouble regaining the acclaim of Borat, but I at least think that he continues to be a unique and compelling force of nature.

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