This week I saw Sasha Baron Cohen give a live interview after a screening of Borat (my second viewing) at the Director’s Guild Theater in LA. As it was with my previous viewing, the crowd loved it. Not since viewing Ghostbusters or The Naked Gun do I remember such pervasive glee. I myself find the movie both hilarious and profoundly disturbing. After both viewings, I spent an hour driving home having the same argument with my date about the quality of the American character: my seeing it as embarrassing and sad and my date staunchly defending it. Borat showcases the worst in American stereotypes. And it was mostly upsetting to see so many Americans so ready and willing to live up to those stereotypes: the hypocritically polite southerner, the redneck rodeo crowd, the religious nut, the black gangsta, the unfriendly New Yorker. Producer Jay Roach claimed last night the movie also illustrates America’s helpful, sweeter side. I don’t buy it. I believe Americans “played helpful” to look good on camera or because they were going through surprise and denial about being made fools of, in shock and denial about their own ignorance.
I also don’t think the film is groundbreaking in a comedic sense? How can I after decades of seeing man-on-the-street hoodwinks by Howard Stern, crank callers on Comedy Central, and The Daily Show? Cohen’s own show has been doing the same send-up for years. So, it’s not new. It’s not inventive. It’s just exploitive, nasty, mean fun. This movie just pushes up the scale of the venture. But it’s still tired and overplayed. And without sincerity. Like a prankster who’s pushing 40 and doing the same old pull-my-finger. Maybe it’s still funny in the hands of a master, but the best parts of Borat were scripted: naked wrestling, the bear sequences, life at home. Why default to the same ole tract house when you are truly smart enough to create a Frank Lloyd Wright?
I’m glad Sasha agreed to be interviewed as himself, unlike similar send-up provocateur Andy Kaufman. You need to see the artist has his own being under the mustaches; and it’s also a treat to be shown the puppet strings from time to time. Sasha was gracious enough to do this and he came across as talented, funny, irreverent, and youthful. He talked of lost scenes, the architecture of the story, about how often the police were called on them (upwards of 40 times!) He spoke of his high profile now and the resulting troubles with his next film.
But if there’s anything important about the movie, it would be the satire on anti-semitism. It’s one thing to hear an anti-semitic character like Borat spew hate; it’s much harder to watch a real person confiding their hatred to you on camera. Borat is an anti-semite, but the film is not. Sasha is from an Orthadox family. He’s kosher himself. At Cambridge, he completed a dissertation on the Jewish role in the American civil rights movement (See Wikopedia). Sasha has made his character an over-conformist to expose the pure ridiculousness of Borat’s attitudes toward Jews. It’s a dangerous kind of satire, over-conformism. It goes over the heads of the worst offenders. You can only hope it works on a subliminal level. But I worry that it gives dolts a comedic license to hate Jews. Therefore, I wish the movie had a warning label for those people: Don’t try this at home.