Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan
The character of Borat Sagdiyev or simply "Borat" seemed to arrive from out of nowhere in the fall of 2006, piercing the insular bubble of American awareness with a hilarious, at times squirm-inducing sort-of-documentary about one man's journey across the United States. American audiences loved it, but even Fox could not have predicted the $128-million windfall that would greet Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, which owes at least some of its box-office to the fact that the studio and the man who stars as the movie's namesake, British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen, were threatened with four separate lawsuits by folks who insisted that they were deceived by Cohen's ruse as the disaster-prone Kazakh television reporter, ensuring that the picture continued to generate headlines well after its debut weekend. Nonetheless, the character of Borat Sagdiyev wasn't entirely new. Cohen had already rolled him out on Da Ali G Show, which aired in the United States on HBO. It seems hard to believe that he fooled everyone he met. But it's clear that a lot of folks many earnest and well-meaning in their willingness to humor the hapless man with the dirty suit and thick accent were completely broadsided. And any film with a "kidnapping consultant" in the credits is bound to offer a few unexpected twists.
Borat Sagdiyev is purported to hail from Kazakhstan, a former Soviet republic which at least as far as Borat is concerned is a nation filled with superstitious, Jew-hating, child molesting, misogynist rapists and zoophiles. Unfortunately, as Borat travels across the United States, some of the folks he meets don't seem much better. Cohen's somewhat brilliant opening (shot in Romania) serves to remind viewers in well-developed nations what life looks like in other parts of the world, where people live in ramshackle houses, keep backyard livestock, and actually own horses as working animals instead of expensive pets. The rapid transition to New York City is jarring, as it's meant to be but Cohen uncorks Borat on camera in short order as he greets complete strangers on a busy Manhattan sidewalk and tries to kiss them. In retrospect, it's by far tamest stunt on screen, because Cohen is essentially the Jackie Chan of film comedy, willing to take any gag to its furthest possible extreme as long as the camera is rolling, and it's only a matter of time before viewers discover that he's a comedian with very few limits. The set-ups move along with Spinal Tap efficiency: Borat looses a chicken in a subway car, solicits advice from a humor coach and a feminist group, gets a driving lesson, crashes a local TV morning show, hangs with African American street youth, becomes a literal bull in a china shop, and bursts naked into a hotel banquet chasing his producer, Azamat Bagatov (Ken Davitian, also disturbingly naked). The entire thing brings a sweat to the palms after all, comedy is supposed to be safe, fictional, at best improvised from script form. Borat, on the other hand, gets a bit nerve-wracking as we realize that Sacha Baron Cohen has abandoned the trust tree, and we can only watch and wonder as we find ourselves saying "No... don't sing... the national anthem... at a rodeo." (He does.) Among those who rattled lawsuits at Cohen, the hosts and guests at the etiquette dinner, it must be admitted, remained polite and helpful until he simply ratcheted the stakes so high that it all became unbearable (the coup de grâce being the unexpected arrival of actress Luenell as a cheap hooker). On the other hand, the frat boys in the RV wind up saying more than enough to regret and yes, they were very drunk, and yes, they knew a camera was rolling. As for that final scene with Pamela Anderson (Borat's love-quest throughout the movie), there's still some debate over how much she knew before it happened. What's more clear is that a throng of autograph seekers had no clue that Sacha Baron Cohen was about to set them up, and they like us are his intended target anyway.
* * *
Fox's DVD release of Borat offers a splendid anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) of a film with an expected variance of source-quality, nearly all of it shot on DV, and a good portion of that on the run. The Dolby Digital 5.1 audio is perfectly adequate for the movie, as are the optional subtitles. Extras include eight deleted scenes (one being more of a montage than a scene), a good portion of which could have been included in the film itself, in particular Cohen's visit to a doctor and a masseuse and at a scant 84 minutes, Borat could use some padding out. Also on hand is the 16-min. featurette "Global Visitings and Television Showings for Purposes of Propaganda of Documentary," which offers a look at Cohen's in-character appearances at ComiCon, the Toronto Film Festival, and the movie's various premiere locations, as well as shots on Conan O'Brien, SNL, and Jay Leno (where he improvises memorably around good sport Martha Stewart). A throwaway soundtrack spoof is also here, and kudos to Fox for the DVD's packaging, which looks like a bootleg, right down to the Sharpie ink on the disc. Keep-case.
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