25 March 2007 | DonFishies
Totally imperfect, but packing one of the best character performances ever
For months, I could not go anywhere, see or read anything without hearing something about Borat: Cultural Learnings of American for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan. It was being hailed as groundbreaking, and hilarious beyond anyone's wildest dreams. Everyone I knew wanted to see it, and I just stood back and could not understand what the big fuss was about. Yeah, it looked fairly amusing, but nothing more than that. Sacha Baron Cohen's Da Ali G Show never impressed me when I watched random episodes, so I was not in belief that this film would.
But with all of the hype, it made me want to see it opening weekend. Unfortunately, I never managed to. I caught it a few weeks later without the benefit of a huge audience watching it with me. And for the most part, I think my original assumption was correct.
Basically for the two people who have zero clue what the movie is about (despite it now being on DVD), Borat Sagdiyev (Cohen) is a Kazak journalist sent to the United States to observe the American way of life. He brings his TV crew with him every step of the way, and begins to explore the country. But because of his origin, he is outrageously obnoxious in his behaviour. But for some reason, it only becomes more tolerated as he continues on, allowing for many surprising responses from the people he comes across.
The satirical idea for the film is simply brilliant. The character of Borat is racist, misogynist, raunchy, and just downright vile in the way he acts. And the Americans he talks to either do not realize what is going on, or actually agree with him. The tour he takes across the United States involves a plethora of random, everyday citizens being duped in this fashion. The fact that the film was marketed so well in the US, and then further made millions, attests to the idea that this may just be the greatest practical joke every played.
But unfortunately, it is a one-note joke. The film loses steam after thirty minutes, and can barely pick up afterwards. It strikes a pretty solid barrier, and just cannot recover no matter how hard it tries. Yes, the proceeding minutes had their share of laughs and shocks, but nowhere near as much as the first little bit. It just sets itself up far too well, and fails to live up to its original design. Its nifty idea and execution really should have told people from the start that it would not work for a ninety minute long film, but I guess they had more faith in the picture than I did.
Another upsetting thing about the film was the grand amount of preplanning. It was continually being sold to the audience as being spur-of-the-moment, and very uncoordinated. But as the film progresses, you can tell that some moments are actually being filmed this way, and that some reek of being rehearsed. It takes away from the satire the film had built up for itself, and really brings down the genuine enjoyment for the film. I know it had barely anywhere to go from the start, but making it almost so that it was written unnaturally before hand, just takes away from the genuine impact that the film has. The fact that the writing was nominated at the Oscars also does an effective amount of damage to the final moments of the film, which otherwise would have been drop dead funny instead of just amusing.
The film-making techniques on the other hand, are just magical. You really get a sense of the gritty and grungy documentary look the filmmakers wanted from the minute the film starts, right up until its finale. The hand-held camera works beautifully in every sequence, and the very personal diary feel that the film gains during the second act works very well. Just trying to keep up with Cohen in certain scenes seemed to have been a test of endurance on its own. The film is very low budget, and it shows in how unique the film looks. If it had not been so heavily publicized, I think I actually would have had trouble deferring whether or not it was an actual documentary if I saw it while flipping through TV channels.
There are no proper words to describe Cohen and his schtick. It really is a sight to marvel all on its own. His dedication and perfection in this role is nearly unheralded in my mind. He goes beyond transcending himself into the character. Every moral fibre of this character is ingrained in Cohen's performance. You do not see Cohen, and you do not see an actor. You see a rude and ignorant Kazak journalist. He never lets up for a second, and is always acting in character. This fictional character is brought to life with so much energy, that he actually forms into a real life person. The line between reality and fiction is just so thin here, that it really begs the question of how far an actor will go for his character. And he is absolutely hysterical to watch.
Ken Davitian, who plays Borat's producer and sidekick Azamat, is also very good in his performance. He is almost always watching, and is so subtle. He never breaks a smile, and he is just so serious that he complements how perfect Cohen's character is. He is obviously not as strong an actor (and is barely understandable), but his valiant efforts do go rewarded.
Even with its flaws, Borat is an experience everyone should take. Some may find it funnier than others, and some may not find it funny at all. There is a bit of a middle ground, but not much. And in the process of watching, everyone will be able to marvel at one of the greatest character performances ever committed to celluloid.