Thursday, November 23, 2006

All That Buzz Over A 'Jackass' In The U.S.

Why are people going ga-ga over a British actor who cons Americans into believing that he is a Kazakhstan journalist trying to learn about their country? A Special Report from Bloomington, Indiana, USA...
The Jackass In The US
Every once in a while, a refreshingly unconventional movie comes along and surprises the world with its ‘originality’ and audacity. Years ago, we had “The Blair Witch Project” and then “Fahrenheit 9/11” which caused upheavals at the U.S. box-office. This time around, a movie by a British-born actor is even giving Mr Double-O-Seven a run for the money at the box-office!

Sacha Baron Cohen’s “Borat” was still strong at No 3 of the US weekend (Nov 17) chart on its second week, despite competition from newcomers “Happy Feet” and “Casino Royale”. In just two weeks, it has grossed about US$90 million (RM680 million) and is still packing ‘em in at the cinemas. Its success has prompted law suits from unsuspecting ‘players’ in its cast, plus a Turkish journalist claiming that the producers had stolen his idea from the Internet.

Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan” (its full title) is a mock documentary about a Kazakhstan TV journalist going to New York to film a documentary about the great nation of America. The protag, Borat Sagdiyeh (Cohen), gets sidetracked when he sees the buxom Pamela Anderson on TV in his hotel room and, together with his producer Azamat (Ken Davitian), sets out for Los Angeles so that Borat can ‘bag’ his newfound love, Pamela, as his bride. On the way, Borat meets and interviews unsuspecting Americans for their views subjects like Jews, gypsies, guns and homosexuals.

Yes, many of his ‘victims’ are conned into saying ‘politically incorrect’ stuff, and along the way, they reveal how ignorant Americans are about foreigners in the underdeveloped world. A car salesman, for example, is asked what car is best used to run down gypsies, and a gun store clerk is asked which gun is appropriate for hunting Jews. Cohen portrays Borat as a sort of cultural jackass, defecating in front of the Trump Tower and masturbating outside a Victoria’s Secret store. In a sequence where he learns high society manners, Borat presents his hostess with a bag of his poop after a visit to the rest-room!

Indeed, these sequences can be hilarious if you can accept that a TV personality from ‘Kazakhstan’ can be so dumb as to think that Pamela is a virgin, washes his face in the toilet bowl and carries a squawking chicken in his luggage bag. Or so brazen as to brawl and wrestle with his producer stark naked in a convention hall of a posh hotel.

Still the fact remains that “Borat” is a big sensation at the U.S. box-office (and is so ‘notoriously insensitive’ that it is banned in Malaysia). Now, why are Americans going ga-ga over “Borat”? Can’t they see that the movie is poking fun at their own ignorance and vulnerability, seemingly buying the line that gays in Kazakhstan wear blue hats and its women live in cages?

I believe that Americans find “Borat” funny because it offers them relief from life in a Politically Correct nation where they are supposed to show sensitivity and compassion for ‘The Others’. Indeed, there are still a lot of pent-up racist feelings in the U.S. of A and “Borat” offers them a chance to laugh at the ‘idiosyncrasies’ they have had to put up with. Other proofs of such a claim is the Oscar-winning “Crash” which dealt with racialism in the US, and the popularity of cable TV shows like “Mind Of Mencia” and the Dave Chapelle show. Cohen has been stirring up such emotions with his hip Ali-G talk-show alter ego over the years and here, he is pulling out all the stops. Hollywood comedies have been known to ‘glorify’ stupidity and with “Borat” Cohen even goes where none has dared to tread before.

But why ‘Kazakhstan’? Cohen is reported to have said: “The joke is not on Kazakhstan. I think the joke is on people who can believe that the Kazakhstan that I describe (where people drink fermented horse urine and the age of consent has been raised to nine years old) can exist…” Whatever, but it comes as no surprise that the Kazakhstan authorities are trying to sue, as do a group of villagers in Romania who 'stood in' as Borat's neighbours in Kazakhstan.

Whether Cohen can get away with it is anybody’s guess, and in case you are wondering, Pamela Anderson will not be filing charges. She is in on the joke.

BORAT: Cultural Insights Into 'US And A'

BORAT (mock documentary)
Cast: Sacha Baron Cohen, Ken Davitian and Pamela Anderson
Director: Larry Charles
Time: 84 mins
Rating: * * * (out of 4)
Cohen takes a jibe at Americans and almost everybody
WHAT’S THE BIG DEAL? “Jagshemash! I am Borat. So nice meet you!” he says, and proceeds to hug and kiss strangers he meets in the train and on the street. He chases pretty girls who pass by and asks: “How much?” Watch out America, the Jackass has landed!
At a time when the big year-end movies are battling for the US box-office dollar, an ‘obscure’ mock documentary is raking in big bucks at the box-office despite its fewer screening venues. “Borat” is causing an upheaval not only at the cinemas but also among its unsuspecting ‘cast’, including a bunch of Romanian villagers and the nation of Kazakhstan, clamouring to sue the film-makers. We haven’t had such a whirlwind controversy since Michael Moore’s “Fahrenheit 9/11” in 2004!

WHAT’S IT ABOUT?Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan” has Sacha Baron Cohen (of “Talladega Nights”) as Borat Sagdiyeh, a Kazakhstan TV journalist coming to the great nation of America to film a documentary on its lifestyle and successes. When Borat arrives in New York with his producer Azamat (an obese Ken Davitian), he catches a Baywatch episode on the hotel TV and falls in love with its star Pamela Anderson.
This sets him on a road-trip to Los Angeles, ostensibly to bag the Baywatch bombshell for his bride. Along the way, Borat takes humour and driving lessons, interviews unsuspecting real-life Americans for their views on subjects like feminism and homosexuality, and how to run down gypsies and hunt Jews. He even persuades a rodeo show boss in Virginia to allow him to sing his ‘national anthem’ in the style of "Kazakhstan is the great country in the world—all other countries are run by little girls." Elsewhere, at a TV talk show, a gay pride parade and even a Southern hospitality dinner, Borat never fails to make an ass of himself and his hosts, like presenting a bag of his faeces to the hostess during dinner, and inviting a cheap fat prostitute along for desserts.
And if those are not crude enough to rile the censors, Borat and Azamat also engage in a bout of nude brawling and wrestling that takes them from their hotel room to a crowded convention hall!

HIGHLIGHTS: Yes, “Borat” is ‘gutter comedy’ at its most outrageous. It seems to pride itself in being offensive, disturbing, deceitful and blatantly politically incorrect. It takes pot-shots at Jews, gypsies, gays, feminists, Christians, Muslims, and everything else to get the kind of laughs that Cohen’s Ali-G TV character is famous for. Admittedly, many of the shots hit home and draw guffaws from the audience.

LOWLIGHTS: Others, like when Borat washes his face in a toilet bowl, or buys a grizzly bear to “protect against Jews” are so utterly ridiculous that they are ‘so not funny’. And can you imagine ANY TV journalist in the world thinking that Pamela Anderson is still a virgin?

THE LOWDOWN: It is obvious that Cohen’s aim in “Borat” is to push the boundaries of taste and decency way beyond what comedies like “American Pie” had done. And from its surprising box-office collection, he has struck deep into America’s funny bone. Perhaps Borat” offers viewers relief from their ‘shackle’ of political correctness and social compassion. Perhaps it gives vent to their pent-up racist feelings. But we must also admit that Cohen can be disarmingly charming as the ‘naïve’ Borat (a character to which he clings on to even at media promotions for the movie). He has precise comic timing and does not try to wring every drop out of his gags. And at a crisp 84 minutes, Cohen’s ‘mockumentary’ has us wanting more at the end.

("Borat" has been banned in Malaysia. This blogger caught the movie in Indianapolis, USA, on Nov 16 2006).