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Borat: A Kazakh newsman’s trip to the “U.S. and A”

by Archives November 15, 2006

Sacha Baron Cohen, known to the cool kids and Europeans as “Ali G” takes his antics on the road with Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan. For his formal American coming out party, Cohen opted to go undercover as a naive and hilariously bigoted Kazak newsman on assignment in the thick of the American cultural landscape.

The film begins with Borat in his native Kazakhstan, which looks more like Appalachia-meets-Serbia. Borat introduces us to his people before he departs for America . This part of the film lacks the coherent pacing found in a more methodical comedy.

What could have been a devastatingly funny bit about the “Running of the Jews” (instead of the running of the bulls) in his hometown is set up in too rash a manner, making the sequence more of a blur than a shocker. But the nervous energy and built -up anticipation becomes a sort of cohesive glue as the film moves to America and progresses into the southern U.S.

Fittingly, Borat enters America just as millions of immigrants have, by landing in New York City, which seems like an island-state unto itself in comparison to the America we are about to see. Here, Cohen has a ball with the self-important smugness of the Wall Street crowd by trying to greet random passersby with his people’s customary greeting: kisses on either cheek and one on the lips.

The toilet humour is also introduced quite early, with Borat relieving himself in a bush in front of an office tower amidst throngs of shocked suits. One gets the impression Cohen revels in offending the average American by presenting to them the extremes they do not allow themselves.

Borat is indeed full of extremes. They are the central sequences that a tiny, delicate plot surfaces out of ever so slightly. The plot involves not only Borat’s documentary of American life but a search for “true love”.

Just as he did with his U.K. program Da Ali G Show, Cohen preys upon the lingering bigotry of conservatives by disarming them into thinking he (under the guise of his character) feels much the same way they do about said forms of hatred.

But Borat seems to be designed to preach to the converted here, building its grassroots campaign through YouTube clips of Borat from the Ali G show and a blitz of appearances by Cohen in character on The John Stewart Show and Late Night with Conan O’Brien, leading up to the movie’s release.

On the political scale, the film is much less damning than, say, Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 911 (which was also released amidst the last days of U.S. election fervor), but perhaps has more staying power in that Cohen illustrates a portrait of an America that is not so much a cohesive national whole, but instead seems to be fragmented into little tribes that have each gone mad in their own terrifying way.

Borat confronts conservative America on three key issues in order to illustrate this: the pearl-necklace-Republican crowd at a country club dinner, the religious right at a devil-exorcising Sunday mass, and a group of college frat boy types that reveal that patriarchy in America is as fearful and vicious as ever.

The Borat character is, of course, designed to be a Trojan horse and also an absurd doppelganger twin of the average middle -aged American. It is no coincidence that Borat quickly leaves New York in order to be with other kindred, Jew-hating spirits below the Mason Dixon Line. And all the hilarity is compounded and the plot propelled by Borat’s obsessive search for his one true love: Pamela Anderson.

Along the way, Cohen manages to fuse together a damning set of scenarios that reveal the American heart of darkness.

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