Thursday, November 3, 2016

After 10 Years, "Borat" is Still a Very Nice Film

Sacha Baron Cohen
In the 21st century, has there ever been a phenomenon quite like Borat? Yes, there are many comedians who do excellent work while pranking audiences in costume, but think of the cultural impact that just one comic creation had. It was the second spin-off movie from Sacha Baron Cohen's Da Ali G Show series, which focused on Kazakhstan journalist Borat Sagdiyev as he explored the great country of America. Part of the joke can be found in the entire title, which is actually Borat: Cultural Learnings of America to Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazahkstan. Yes, part of the joke was in Borat's (played by Cohen) broken English. However, it would be a definitive, ground breaking mockumentary meant to explore America's real feelings on touchy subjects. It's hilarious and 10 years later is still among the sharpest comedies ever.

It is easy to recognize the fatigue that followed Borat's release. The incessant bad accents and broken English could wear on anyone. It was a joke that had been done better decades earlier by comedians like Yakov Smirnoff. However, the joke was literally lost in translation. It wasn't how the British Cohen said lines like "My wife" or "Very nice," but what his comic timing brought to the moment. Borat was essentially shot in real time with only a few characters being in on the joke. Everyone simply thought that Cohen was a foreigner who wore cheap suits and had a tacky 70's porno mustache. Cohen brought naivety to Borat that was deceptive. It was because of this that the occasional interviewee wouldn't notice his slip into racy topics. It's still ambiguous as to whether certain subjects were playing along or merely had troubling beliefs.

What's most impressive is that Cohen was committed throughout the entire production. He would stay in character even in the face of chaos. The cheap production of the mockumentary only added to the appeal, especially as Borat's comments became more and more upsetting. The question that most people on screen would likely ask is "Who's going to see this?" Most would simply think that the insensitive comments were cut when on the contrary they were the driving force. When Borat sings the national anthem at a Texas rodeo, he is confronted by George W. Bush-era Republicans who are for the War on Terror and are homophobic. It may be easy targets, but it's more shocking to wonder if these opinions were in fact real. The absurdity within itself elevates the conventional slapstick and racist jokes to an art form. 

Borat was an unexpected hit for a variety of reasons. While it likely achieved initial acclaim on simple word of mouth, it was also a hard R-Rated comedy that sought to show the dark side of American culture via a road trip mockumentary. Maybe there was something to shocking audiences with the horrific comedy that could be mined from everyday life, especially those who rarely spoke as candidly in any form of a public environment. So while the film had centerpiece scenes involving ice cream truck bears and nude fighting, it also had the lasting appeal of capturing an America that was of the moment, but also one that was more ridiculous than it got credit for. For better or worse, Borat was a "fictional" essay about the American Dream and how it actually looked from an outsider's perspective.

The film's cultural impact may be most blatant in the references, but it also came in the countless lawsuits that Cohen faced. Between Borat and his follow-up Bruno, he acquired several lawsuits from people who were filmed in questionable ways with questionable opinions. They hated looking bad. Cohen's professionalism also came in an anarchic fashion that constantly saw him in tangles with the law and eventually made the fascination become in part how long he could get away with his actions. Soon it just became about how long he could fool people, as the success of Borat made his character too recognizable. Even when he raised tourism for Kazakhstan, the country hated him for misrepresenting them as a culture. Few films have prodded international audiences quite as noticeably as Borat.

Yes, it is a film that hinges on Borat's love of Baywatch star Pamela Anderson before becoming saddened by her infamous sex tape. It's a plot so ridiculous that it could easily overshadow the political discourse that Cohen wants to include. In fact, that's part of the appeal. During promotions for the film, Cohen stayed in character. Borat once appeared on The Tonight Show while sleeping in a bed with Martha Stewart. There was a novelty to a fictional character breaking the fourth wall. Everything about the film felt real, even if the world was supposed to be fake. There was so much blurring that the world was drunk with their love of Borat. While his demeanor was played to annoying extents, the subject at the center is what makes the film still a vital piece of 21st century comedy.

Cohen received an Oscar nomination for the screenplay. Despite having a lengthy career since (even in 2006 also appearing in Talladega Nights and Sweeney Todd), he has never been able to shake the character of Borat. He even came on Jimmy Kimmel Live this past year to suggest that Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump is merely a fictional character. It makes sense how this logic came to pass, as the discomforting nature of America in 2006 does seem pretty prevalent in the modern election. However, Borat wasn't a film created as a cautionary tale, but more as a critique on the culture at large. By poking at the awkward moments of people's lives, the film managed to find comedy in the real world, and that's something that few have done since. Borat the character may be an old hat trick by now, but Borat the film shows what comedy should've evolved into in subsequent years. 

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