Watching Ebert: Borat (Charles, 2006)

This is the next in a series of reviews of films Roger Ebert has given four stars to between the years of 1967 and 2007, inspired by his book, Roger Ebert’s Four Star Reviews.

You think the expression “rolling in the aisles with laughter” is a euphemism until you actually see it happen. I never saw rolling in the aisles until the preview screening of Borat in 2006, a film so shockingly funny that moviegoers were literally standing up from their seat and stomping on the ground in hysteria. I rewatched the film again in preparation for the release of Sacha Baron Cohen’s new film, Bruno, and while it doesn’t pack quite as much punch the second time around, the guerilla comedy tactics utilized by Cohen and his startlingly earnest performance still maintain the ability to shock. The real question: how was he not nominated for an Oscar?

The central conceit is simple—Borat (Sacha Baron Cohen) is a reporter from Kazakhstan, sent with his producer Azamat Bagatov (played gamely by Ken Davitian) to America to report on the Western culture. There is no plot to speak of, other than Borat developing an obsession with Pamela Anderson and heading to California to win her heart. Along the way, Cohen employs his startle-comedy, pretending to be an innocuous simple-minded foreigner and somehow bringing out the worst in many of the Americans he encounters.

An opening sequence in Kazakhstan where we meet Borat’s family is obviously staged and scripted, but still delivers laughs. It’s like the first course of a meal—it’s pleasant and prepares our palate for the flavors to come. When Borat and Azamat ride down the escalator in JFK Airport, and hold on to the handrail for dear life in shock, director Larry Charles makes sure to catch the stunned New Yorkers’ expressions. That’s one of two elements of Cohen’s comedy: the misbehaving foreigner taking Americans aback with the rude behavior. The second element is what makes the film sizzle on a satirical level: Cohen and Charles love to engage the other characters (victims?) of their film and get them talking. It might seem facile to fool Southern folks into saying racist, xenophobic, and homophobic statements, but Cohen’s earnestness is what coaxes them into feeling safe enough to state their true feeling, not merely the set-up.

If critics praise “method” actors for what they do to prepare for the film, why can’t critics praise the acting done by Cohen for what he does during a film? Even the actor most deeply rooted in method preparation techniques, staying in character even when the camera isn’t rolling, cannot do what Cohen does here. He is completely off the reservation with what he is willing to do for this film… and the best part is once you think Cohen has gone too far, he takes immaculately timed steps to show how much farther he will take it.

Example (and spoilers for those who haven’t seen this film in the three years since it came out): Borat comes out of a bath to see Azamat naked with Borat’s picture of Pamela Amderson, which gets a big laugh. Borat then tackles the naked fat man, dropping his towel and becoming naked himself—bigger laugh. Azamat then stands up, revealing his full… nakedness. Enormous laugh. While wrestling with Azamat, Borat finds himself in very compromising positions, which get increasingly explicit as the scene continues, letting the laughter build to the point where it’s unbearable. That’s when Cohen and Charles deliver the fatal blow. Both characters run naked into their hotel and jump into an elevator full of people, who get off at the next level. Here is where Larry Charles manning the camera can receive credit for comedic brilliance—he pans the camera to Borat’s face, then Azamat’s face, and then unexpectedly reveals one lone man still standing in the corner of the elevator. They then leave the elevator and run out of the shot. The editing, which never got enough credit when the film first came out, comes into play here: the film cuts to the inside of a convention being held in a reception room in the hotel, and it gets a huge laugh before the characters even enter. The audience anticipates where Cohen and Charles are now taking them, and they double over, simply refusing to believe what they are about to see. The payoff, complete with security tackling our heroes, is of course priceless.

How long can Sacha Baron Cohen get away with this? Early buzz on his new film, Bruno, has suggested that he has fooled yet another group of hapless victims for his guerilla comedy tactics. Eventually, one would think Cohen’s fame from these films will become so widespread that Americans will realize the prank being perpetrated on them. Until then, Cohen is a comedic actor’s role model, managing to not only keep a straight face during the silliest of on-camera antics, but stay deadpan when the camera stops in order to follow the prank through. Some of the segments are obviously scripted, and some “real” bits seem dubious (the Pamela Anderson meeting at the end is almost certainly staged), but in the end, it’s not the how that matters, it’s the result. I have witnessed an audience stomp, roll, and shriek at Borat, before most of them even knew who Borat was. It’s not really a “film” in the pure sense of the word, but it’s unquestionably a terrific film experience.


Ebert says: “I think it is, as everybody has been saying, the funniest movie in years. And not because it is dumb (although it’s very dumb), but because it is smart (and it is very smart).”

Read the rest here.

~ by russellhainline on July 10, 2009.

One Response to “Watching Ebert: Borat (Charles, 2006)”

  1. […] Netflix Recommendation: Borat (Charles, 2006) « The Password is … […]

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