Sunday, August 8, 2010

The Movie List: Borat (2006)

Film: Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan
Director: Larry Charles
Oscar Nominations: 1 (Adapted Screenplay; Screenplay by Sacha Baron Cohen & Anthony Hines & Peter Baynham & Dan Mazer, Story by Sacha Baron Cohen & Peter Baynham & Anthony Hines & Todd Phillips)
Finally, another entry in The Movie List series. Upon its release, Borat hardly seemed like much of an awards contender. Really, it didn't seem like it would be much of anything, since Fox released it on fewer than 1000 screens. But it not only won over the American public, but critics fell in love with the film, which earned Sacha Baron Cohen a much-deserved Golden Globe for his performance (and, honestly, deserved an Oscar nomination for the role too, but you know AMPAS: comedy isn't the fodder of great performances). It became one of the biggest surprise hits of 2006, turning Cohen into both a celebrity and a defendant (he faced a flood of lawsuits from people who appeared in the film), and spawned a diminishing-returns sequel in last year's Bruno.
Borat, for those of you who have no idea what I'm talking about, is a guerrilla mockumentary based on one of Cohen's characters from his cult British TV show, Da Ali G Show. He plays Borat Sagdiev, a popular Kazakh reporter who is sent with his producer/cameraman Azamat (Ken Davitian) to the United States to make a documentary. The film doesn't set much up outside of interviews and basic outlines of scenes, allowing Cohen to improvise almost every scene in order to gain the best kind of comedy: the kind that hurts because its true.
This is the genius of Borat and Cohen. Through this bumbling idiot of a fake reporter, Cohen holds up an ugly mirror to ourselves, exposing our own xenophobia, racism, prejudices and stupidity. These candid moments are the film's greatest strength, providing the biggest laughs and the most honest moments, for better or worse. The film's best scene is one of these: Borat appears at a rodeo, where a man instructs him to shave his mustache so that he won't "look like a terrorist," after which he goes out to sing the national anthem, getting cheers from the crowd for proclaiming that he supports America's "war of terror" and that he hopes we kill every terrorist and Iraqi. Borat is certainly one of the best social satires of the past decade, and perhaps even on of the best of all times.
If the film does have any weaknesses, its the scripted parts between Borat and Azamat, which never feel like anything more than clunky exposition to keep the story moving. Which is why the film's only Oscar nomination came for its screenplay: the best parts of the film were NOT scripted. But I imagine voters didn't really know where to nominate it, so instead chose to throw it a nod here, even though it was certainly more worthy for Best Actor.
So here's the question: how does the film hold up four years later? Well, some of the initial shock-and-awe has worn off, since the second time around you are already aware of what's in store. The scripted bits also only seem weaker with the passing of time. But the film does still hold up as a portrait of ugly Americans at our most vulnerable points: when we have no idea we're being watched. Though Borat is very much of its time, its themes are timeless, and that will help it hold up over time.

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