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"My name-a Borat."
The year 2006 could be characterized as one with many events in the pop culture scene, the most notable being the arrival of Sacha Baron Cohen's Kazakh alter ego Borat Sagdiyev on the motion-picture scene. The small production started, stopped, and restarted, and a sleepy production costing less than $20 million made over ten times that in worldwide box-office totals, generated howls of protest from the Kazakhstan government, and vaulted Cohen into the comedic mainstream. How does it stand up now?
Facts of the Case
The main premise of the character, who was known by many from Cohen's 2004 Da Ali G Show on HBO, was that Borat was approved by the government to make a documentary about America—excuse me, the "US and A." In the process of the production, he and his trusty producer Azamat Bagatov (Ken Davitian, Holes) interview many people throughout America. However, when Borat sees the show Baywatch on a hotel television, the trip through America becomes a quest to meet, and hopefully marry, star Pamela Anderson. Oddly enough, Borat chronicles this.
I first remember seeing Borat—Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (Widescreen Edition) on a sleepy Sunday at the first matinee showing of the day, and remembering that the fairly smallish room was pretty packed for a Sunday show at 11 a.m. After that, everything was just a blur. In the 80 minutes that Cohen is on screen, he packs more laughs into genuine circumstances and situations than any comic in recent memory, so much so that, for an audience seeing it for the first time, we were left with watery eyes and gasping for our collective breath. It was the most enjoyable theater experience I've had in my recent memory.
What's the magic to Cohen's mojo? What is it about Borat that makes it such an enjoyable movie? If anything, it's that Cohen is very patient and pragmatic with the character and the laughs he can get out of him. When Borat sits down with former congressman Bob Barr, the meeting seems pretty straightforward and amicable, even as Borat's goodwill gesture is made. You may be able to see the hook coming, but it's worth it just to see the reaction on Barr's face. Cohen also lets Borat's countenance act as a sounding board for many of the non-HBO households in America. He has quiet prejudices evidenced by wearing a vial of gypsy tears for "protection from AIDS" and his last high-profile journalistic assignment was for the "running of the Jew." So when he asks about the best car to run over gypsies with, or the best gun to kill a Jew, and the deadpan answers come back, the funniest part is a toss-up between the outrageousness of the question and the seriousness of the response. As the film evolves from documentary to quest, one can see some flavors of Easy Rider or Lost in America to it. There's even a cute sequence where Borat goes to a country-western bar with a prostitute who's a little on the BBW side.
As a long-term cinematic pleasure, Borat may be more of a hit-or-miss entertainment after repeated viewings. I absolutely enjoyed seeing it in the theater but, watching it again when it came to DVD, a lot of the magic was lost. It's almost like it borders on the shock/reality/comedy genres that Jackass had mined out. When I watched Borat yet again the other night, some of the laughs returned, but to paraphrase Borat, "not so much." It's a movie that lends itself to watching with other people for a better experience, or at least viewing as infrequently as possible. Some of the interview segments almost look like you could substitute Cohen for Tom Green and get the same desired effect. But the segments that miss in the film are few and far between, as Cohen gives the scene a chance to grow organically before providing a well-timed comment guaranteed to make you cringe. Technically, in a bit of a surprise, the 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen presentation of the film is much better than I expected, probably because the film was transferred digitally from the hand-held elements. The Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack is welcome, but not entirely necessary. The aesthetic point of the disc is one where they clearly decided to keep things in the Kazakh frame of mind. Open up the disc case, and you get a DVD-R looking disc with Borat seemingly written with a Sharpie. Cute. Going to the menus, I saw that everything is done with the production values that the opening film credits utilized. Want to play, excuse me, "Commence Moviefilm?" Go ahead. Don't like the intro? Then go to "Make Scene Choosings." After that, there is about a half-hour of bonus footage that most fans have probably already seen. The massage and cheese scenes were the funniest in my book and they probably could have been thrown into the film in place of other scenes. The press for the film is recounted in a 15-minute highlight reel of sorts, including the infamous Toronto Film Festival screening when the projector "malfunctioned." A humorous informercial on the film's soundtrack completes things.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I know it's an easy statement to make (but oh so true), but a commentary with Cohen and Charles, or even with producer Jay Roach (Meet the Parents), would have been a slam dunk to put in here. The barren nature of the extras screams out to this reviewer that a double dip has got to be in the making.
Borat is by far the funniest movie of 2006. Cohen's ability to let his interview subjects speak their minds makes your jaw drop but you can't help but laugh at it. You've gotta try to keep each viewing as fresh as possible because some of the scenes where you originally laughed your head off might not let you crack a smile on the second go-round. Having said that, I eagerly encourage everyone to go snap this up and put it in their libraries under "V" for "very nice!"
Borat and Azamat are found not guilty and are free to roam the country to find out more about the US and A. High five!
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