AN ANTI-PC PARADISE: of squalor, ignorance, sexism, homophobia, racism, anti-Semitism, and bad taste, and Borat is its id-like innocent.
One principle of comedy is that something is funny if it’s us laughing at them, not the other way around. Thus, we can laugh, and do, when Borat (or Sacha Baron Cohen, since in theory we are laughing at Borat also) gleefully, seemingly ingenuously, acts like an idiot and so encourages his victim to act likewise. We laugh when, for example, Borat’s boorishness encourages a redneck to indulge in his own racism and homophobia. Or when he spurs a rodeo crowd into bloodthirsty jingoism. Or provokes a panel of venerable feminists to disclose that, indeed, they are opposed to misogyny.
But I wonder, what if Borat were to corner one of us, we who so smugly laugh at the discomfiture of these fools, in similar circumstances? Say, if he, in all sincerity, presented us with a bag of his excrement? Ignorant of his real identity or intentions, perhaps we too would end up looking pretty stupid. In which case, I suppose, the result would no longer be comedy but art.
Be that as it may, who is Borat? In some circles that question would get you laughed out of the room. (Although Fox, by cutting the film’s opening to only 800 screens, has shown less confidence in how wide those circles might be.) For the uninitiated: he’s a TV reporter from Kazakhstan, a real former Soviet Republic reimagined as an updating of Al Capp’s Lower Slobbovia. It’s an anti-PC paradise of squalor, ignorance, sexism, homophobia, racism, anti-Semitism, and bad taste, a lost Eden of impulses that even talk radio would find over the top, and Borat is its id-like innocent — an innocent whom Cohen and the movie cannily exploit.
With his producer, Azamat (Ken Davitian), Borat sets off for America on the title quest, and his guilelessness charms as he encounters such wonders as elevators, indoor plumbing, and cable TV. The latter introduces him to Baywatch and Pamela Anderson. He falls in love with her, and secretly his goal now is to head for Hollywood and bag his beloved.
It’s the oldest and purist genre, the road movie, but whereas Borat’s anguish can be touching, if scatological, Cohen’s intentions are highly calculated. The pair take a Southern route to the West Coast, guaranteeing a tour of deepest Dixie and leaving more than a few red-staters red-faced. Somehow, though, I suspect that the degree to which those being punked were in on the gag depended on their access to legal representation. Pamela Anderson, I’m pretty sure, knew what was up, but maybe not so much the drunken frat boys in the Winnebago. As for political fat cats: Alan Keyes? Even with such lightweights Borat goes uncharacteristically soft; he’s no Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert.
On the other hand, maybe it’s just Larry Charles in his feature debut trying to get arty (note the Midnight Cowboy allusion), but Borat takes time just to enjoy its sheer visual absurdity, whether it’s a brief shot of a very tall and a very small man intent at ping-pong or an excruciatingly prolonged sequence of a very thin and hairy man and a very fat and hairy man wrestling without shame or mercy. Although I knew it was dishonest, cynical, and the ultimate in cheap-shot humor, I laughed more at Borat than at any other film this year. So I guess the joke is on me.