Monday, September 11, 2006

TIFF 2006: "BORAT..."

(Midnight Madness)
United States, 82 minutes, 2006
Written by: Sacha Baron Cohen, Anthony Hines, Peter Baynham, Dan Mazer
(Story by Cohen, Baynham, Hines, Todd Phillips )
Directed by: Larry Charles
Cast: Sasha Baron Cohen, Ken Davitian, Pamela Anderson

In a cosmopolitan event boasting the latest from auteur-darlings like Pedro Almodovar, Ken Loach, and Volker Schlöndorff , this haphazard and style-free spin-off from a British cult TV series somehow became TIFF 2006’s hottest ticket , probably because even the most staid “Paulette”-type has a secret limit as to how much pockmarked, Drano-corroded angst he/she can endure. In its own way, the gleefully incendiary “Borat: Cultural Learnings Of America Make Benefit Glorious Nation Of Kazakhstan” (“Borat”, folks, from here on in…) aspires to the same noble task as many of the fest’s more erudite and liberal fare: to lament our ignorance of foreign cultures, castigate the durability of stereotypes, and celebrate our similarities as good, honest planetary citizens. It’s just that your average Nuri Bilge Ceylan effort doesn’t feature a brawl between two hairy, naked men over who has the right to jerk off to Pamela Anderson.

The TIFF premiere is already stuff of festival lore: Cohen arrived in character at the rush-only Ryerson theatre, beaming atop an oxcart pulled by peasant women. Twelve minutes into the screening, the projector broke down, prompting fellow provocateur Michael Moore to offer his expertise in repairing the equipment. Ultimately, the screening was rescheduled to the next evening where it sold out again at the larger Elgin Theatre. “Borat”-mania stopped short of having it win the People’s Choice Award, but I’ll bet the many who wanted to vote for it succumbed to the guilt pang of “prestige” as they put pencil to paper.

Since then, it’s erupted into an international scandal akin to the uproar over those Danish Mohammed cartoons (but thankfully, not the violence). As of this writing, the outraged Kazakhstan Prime Minister has just flown to Washington to meet with Dubya (Cohen showed up at the White House gates in character but was not admitted—there’s something for the DVD supplement!), “Kazakhstan” tourism videos have begun airing on Canadian television in heavy rotation, and the Anti-Defamation League has issued an official statement expressing concern that the public is too stupid to get the joke.

And it’s not even out until November.

A film so fearless of extremes demands an extreme reaction—but I’m not overstating things when I say that “Borat” is one of the funniest things I’ve seen in ages, not to mention ever. “Good taste”, Picasso said famously, “is the enemy of creativity”, while the late deconstructionist Susan Sontag once lauded “bad taste” as good for one’s digestion. Well, I found the whole thing wildly inventive and it went down easy, even as I was wiping away tears. Take from that what you will…

Mustachioed beanpole Borat Sagdiyev (Cohen) introduces himself as his country’s “sixth most famous” from the streets of his shithole village in the former Soviet republic of Kazakhstan, where the annual “Running Of The Jew” is being held. He then takes us to his shack/home, to introduce to his jealous neighbor, prostitute sister (“fourth best”!), and corpulent stone-faced wife. He’s convinced his government to finance a trip to New York City along with his producer Azamat (Davitian) so that they can document America’s culture.

Manhattanites are resistant to his overt manhandling and questionable hygiene, and his blatant sexism doesn’t impress the feminist group he interviews either. But when Borat happens upon a “Baywatch” rerun, he falls for the pneumatic charms of Pamela Anderson and decides to leave The Big Apple for California (“Pearl Harbor is there…so is Texas”) in the only vehicle he and Azamat can afford: a dilapidated ice cream truck (the reason he won’t fly is one of the film’s most outrageously offensive lines, which drew audible gasps in the screening I attended).

En route across the heartland, Borat and Azamat engage in plenty of squirm-inducing confrontations with real people that are either staged (although I’m sure the release form these people signed was vague at best), or genuine veritĂ© (the image quality changing to that of sub-camera phone is a good indication that what we’re seeing is total on-the-fly sandbagging).

A good deal of the laughs come at the expense of the South, which would play as fish-in-a-barrel laziness were it not for the fact that the real-life players in question recklessly expose their prejudices with such shameless conviction. Knowing that Cohen himself is Jewish takes some of the edge off of the un-PC shenanigans, but what’s really disturbing here is that while Cohen is joking in character, his interviewees are not. When Borat enters a gun shop to inquire about the best weapon to shoot Jews, the proprietor doesn’t waste a beat in recommending a “9mm”. At a rodeo in which he is greeted as an international guest (he’ll sing the Kazakhstan national anthem to the tune of The Star Spangled Banner), Borat informs a rancher that in his country homosexuals are hung, to which the old-timer admits is an idea long overdue. The Birmingham high-society drips who think they are coaching their guest on sophisticated manners seem more appalled by the arrival a black woman (his guest--an 800-number prostitute…) than at his lack of understanding about indoor plumbing.

And the drunken frat boys who pick up Borat in their RV (and also break his heart by showing him the Pamela Anderson/Tommy Lee sex tape) must be the only Ivy League spoiled brats who have never encountered cable TV or YouTube.

Borat and Azamat eventually part ways, after a literal balls-to-the-wall spat when Borat catches his producer with his prized “Baywatch” book (stolen from a yard sale while attempting to gather “gypsy tears”). What begins as a humorous lampoon on “Women In Love”s famed wrestling scene becomes excruciating when it takes on a “They Live” length and the black censor’s box proves unable to contain the Kazak version of “tea bagging”.

Borat eventually tracks his bride-to-be down in a Virgin Megastore, where he joins the line of adoring fans so he can proclaim his love. When he lunges at her with his Kazak “marriage sack”, Pamela Anderson’s shriek is completely genuine, as is her panicked run through the parking lot where the sorry store security drones finally clue in and topple Borat to the pavement. Not to be too glib, but Anderson’s not a good enough actress to even convincingly play herself, so I’ve got to assume what we’re seeing is real (crappy cell-phone video quality again) and that she’s a terrific sport in allowing this embarrassing footage to be used.

For such a freewheeling exercise, the filmmakers have shown remarkable restrain in its running time, which, in this age when a goofball romp like “The Wedding Crashers” runs longer than Ingmar Bergman’s “Cries And Whispers”, is a too rare thing indeed. Credit must go to TV-vet Larry Charles for his expert timing and pacing, honed so well on his many classic “Seinfeld” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm” episodes (equivalent achievements that dared to drag difficult subjects into the mainstream). And even those who will call for its destruction will marvel at Cohen’s willingness to do anything for a laugh, displaying a conviction to his character that surpasses that of Peter Sellers or any method actor of the Hoffman/Brando set.

Suffice to say that the “mockumentary” label doesn’t quite capture it: Christopher Guest’s ersatz docs are completely manufactured environments in which “reality” is a matter of style, but “Borat”—whose lead character isn’t real but his misadventures are--is an all-out guerilla blitzkrieg that will play as a wacky road trip romp for some and a damning contemporary indictment for others, with Cohen’s oblivious anti-Gump a clowning conduit to whom our worst intolerances aren’t so much ambushed as they are freely offered.

Robert J. Lewis
TIFF 2006