Well, now we can finally see for ourselves what is all the hoohah surrounding Sacha Baron Cohen’s Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, for today the film has been unleashed on screens everywhere in the U.S. and A. (Not as many as originally intended, as some Fox suits began to wonder if the movie would play as well all over the country as the early reviews, from Cannes through Toronto, all suggested it would.)
Anne Thompson at Risky Biz indicates that, as of today, the movie has maintained an unusually high 95% approval rating with the keepers of the flame at Rotten Tomatoes. But, of course, no movie, no matter how widely hailed, could possibly be universally acclaimed—Armond White dons sackcloth and ashes in his Borat review, and Anthony Lane can be heard sniffing from a high-rise in deepest, darkest downtown Manhattan, well safe from being victimized by one of Baron Cohen’s ruses (so far, anyway!)
David Edelstein goes for Borat-- up to a point—in his New York magazine piece entitled “So Funny It Hurts,” but Manohla Dargis in the New York Times and J. Hoberman in the ever-eroding Village Voice are squarely in Baron Cohen’s corner, and as such have turned in two of the most enjoyable reviews I’ve read in a long time. (Hoberman adds a query that has been on my mind since seeing Cohen on late-night TV this past week as well as in some of the original Borat segments of the Ali G DVDs: “How does Baron Cohen keep a straight face? If ever there was a movie that demanded a documentary devoted to its making, it's this one.”)
But most enjoyable, in an keenly interactive sort of way, is Jim Emerson’s response to both White and Lane in his Scanners post "They No Like Borat”:
To Lane, Sacha Baron Cohen is a guy who "adopts fictional personae and then marches briskly into the real world with a mission to embarrass its inhabitants." That may be Punk'd (or Candid Camera) but that's the least of what's going on in Borat, which presents these improvisations in a fictional narrative context that give them meaning (and, consequently, humor). To White, Borat is "anti-American propaganda," that "primarily consists of genital humor, scatological humor and jokes about deformity and mental retardation" -- while any praise of the film is "a bit seditious" and amounts to "evil criticism." OK, that movie doesn't sound funny to me, either. But that movie is nine shots of Armond White with just a splash of Borat Sagdiyev.
Lane is baffled by Borat. White goes off on a comically crude and incoherent rant against Madonna, Andy Kaufman, Neil LaBute, Madonna (again), 9/11, George W. Bush, Michael Moore, Emir Kusturica, the "angry Left’s vicious temerity" and the "self-loathing" of "Borat’s ass-kissing film critics." Yes, in White's six-paragraph review he spews more bilious imagery -- "pits," "sewer gas," "flatulent," "odious," "evil," "stench," "Ethnic-Cleansing" -- than the feature film he's accusing of low blows. (And for some people, inexplicably, everything will always be about Madonna.)
White, an increasingly self-conscious provocateur who, as Jim correctly states, often writes for attention, here gets a bit more:
In his second paragraph, White writes: "As Borat Sagdiyev, Cohen pretends to document the habits of fly-over America; his red state debauch ultimately pandering to Liberals’ worst instincts." He lumps together the "trio of middle-aged feminists" with "an etiquette club’s dinner party, a gang of ghetto rap boys, Pamela Anderson fans, any group that might be perceived as voting conservative." What makes White assume all these "groups" he's describing might be perceived as voting conservative? Middle-aged feminists and Pamela Anderson fans? Southern aristocrats in a mansion on or near Secession Blvd. and "ghetto rap boys"? Does he honestly think the film has the same attitude toward them all? (White thinks the movie too afraid to poke fun at "N.Y./L.A. media-centers" and exploits cultural confusion to divisive ends; I think Borat's a social-liberal populist disguised behind a giant moustache, who shrewdly identifies with blacks and gays because he doesn't want to risk causing truly divisive offense. )
And finally, here’s part of what Jim has to say regarding Lane:
There is none so provincial as a patronizing New Yorker who's spent too long in his solipsistic media-center bubble. White claims Talladega Nights was "derisive about the Midwest’s auto-racing subculture" (but at least he thought it was funny, though he doesn't mention it co-starring Sacha Baron Cohen); Lane writes, "This defense of Borat as an unwitting scourge of the reactionary—unearthing Midwestern beliefs no less parochial than those he left behind in Kazakhstan—is sound as far as it goes." No acknowledgment that, after a brief Kazakhstan introduction, the whole second section of the movie takes place in New York City, and the last act in Los Angeles and Orange County. Borat's route goes from New York through Washington, D.C., then into the South, and through Texas and the Southwest on the way to the Pacific coast. But to these guys, anything west of Jersey is "The Midwest." Borat's not that insulting.
I’m tempted to just repost Jim’s entire piece, it’s that sharp—and I haven’t even seen Borat yet (my wife and I plan to make it part of our 13th wedding anniversary festivities this weekend). But know that what makes Jim’s approach to the topic valuable is not only that he provides direct rebuttal to (unfortunately fairly typical) reactionary reviews from these two critics. The discussion also gives Jim a chance to deal directly with the whole concept of what is funny and why it is funny, a much more complex topic than we often allow for or even care to deal with when thinking about comedies ("Is it funny?" is usually as far as the inquiry goes), and a seemingly illuminating one when dealing with as an apparently incendiary, unapologetically satirical project as Borat.
Jim also helps those “confused about the difference between the fictional Kazakhstan, homeland of Borat Sagdiyev… and the former Soviet Socialist Republic in Central Asia” by making available both ”Official Website of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Kazakhstan” and “Official America Web Site”. Thank you, Mr. Emerson!
And to get you started on your weekend, he’s also alerting readers to a rare four-star Friday on RogerEbert.com, where all four movies under consideration-- Borat, 49 Up, 51 Birch Street and (yea!) Old Joy all get the highest rating.
Call me crazy, but even with all the TV appearances and reviews and think pieces that have been available since May on Borat, I feel like I’ve managed to avoid seeing too much, getting tired of Baron Cohen in that wild hair, dirty suit and Harry Reems mustache (good one, Ms. Dargis) or even, heaven forbid, getting my hopes up too high for the final result. All the discussion has certainly kept the subject a lively one, and I look forward to getting a chance to see the movie for myself. And I will bring an aspirator, just in case I threaten to self-execute from laughter.