Every week, Ultimate Movie Year looks back into the past to highlight the best film that came out that weekend.
“Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan”
Released Nov. 3, 2006
Directed by Larry Charles
Critical acclaim for film comedies does not come easy. No matter how successful or funny a movie is, they are rarely slotted for a “Best of” list or awards consideration, despite even the Golden Globes having a category that recognizes explicitly comedy, which is some feat.
So how do we rate film comedy? It often comes down to public sentiment, and often revolves around one standard: Is the movie quotable, or not? The best comedies of modern film all meet this standard, from “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” to “Ghostbusters,” “The Big Lebowski” to “Anchorman.” Presumably, dust-covered children who dropped Rufus T. Firefly lines on classmates were the coolest kids of the Depression-era.
By this standard, “Borat,” the 2006 comedy starring Sacha Baron Cohen’s Kazakh transplant wreaking havoc across the cultural norms of America, is one of the best. But all good things must come to an end, and it’s time to retire the film’s choicest lines.
Baron Cohen originated the character of Borat in the 1990s when he was performing comedy on British television, and fully-formed the bit on “Da Ali G Show.” Borat is a television host from Kazakhstan who is filming documentary segments in the United States. Dressed in a cheap gray suit with unkempt hair and a bushy mustache, Baron Cohen fully commits to playing Borat’s lack of understanding about modern American culture to interview unsuspecting participants. Occasionally, the interviewees’ humor Borat’s odd and insulting comments, giving Baron Cohen opportunities to continue building his character through improv. Other times, Baron Cohen gives the participants just enough rope to hang themselves with their own prejudices.
A few years earlier, Baron Cohen’s Ali G, an idiotic British rapper, was the first of his characters to headline a motion picture in 2002. The fictional movie received mixed notices and was never released in the United States. This time Baron Cohen and director Larry Charles envisioned the Borat film as a combination of improv and mockumentary, having the character visit towns and cities across the United States to see what happens when everyday Americans interact with Borat. That vision proved to be “great success” (Hey, we didn’t get to the retirement ceremony yet).
Following a perfect, hilarious introduction of Borat in his home country of Kazakhstan that establishes his background and viewpoint, the film quickly moves to the United States. Though there is a relatively thin plotline of Borat and his producer struggling to stay on budget as they travel across the country, the film is mostly comprised of individual sketches and scenes of Baron Cohen taking his high-wire improv act to the general public.
It says something about the current state of American life that even though “Borat” was released slightly more than a decade ago, the society seen here feels like it’s from a generation past. The United States of “Borat” was in the midst of the George W. Bush administration (of which Borat notably skews as the “war of terror”). Still, these glimpses take place before the iPhone was introduced, and social media really took off. As a society, we had yet to document nearly every critical moment of our lives online and on camera.
The movie only succeeds because everybody who encounters Borat not only has no idea who is, but takes this weird and ridiculous outsider entirely seriously. Had Baron Cohen attempted to kidnap Pamela Anderson, increasingly provoke a rodeo audience with an inflammatory Kazakh national anthem, and befuddle a local morning television news team, they would have all become viral trends within days, and much of the film’s surprise would have been ruined. To create a similar movie in a post-social media world would be an impossibility without the public catching on quick.
Likewise, Borat’s interaction with various people reveals passive racism, sexism, and homophobia. At the time, it was a natural privilege to laugh off these encounters, a worldview that was destined to expire in time or relegated to only certain parts of the country. Still, again, we see how social media has changed our perception, as it’s easier than ever to express our darker impulses, and those viewpoints are often closer to our homes and communities than we thought.
But that’s not to say that all the people Borat interacts with are misguided and hurtful. In fact, the majority of these encounters reveal the kindness of strangers, and a near superhuman level of tolerance as Baron Cohen continues to gradually raise the temperature of the room with slights, insults, and inappropriate behavior. Borat’s overly affection greeting of handshakes and kisses for men spook most New Yorkers in the city, but out in the suburbs, a driver’s education instructor is non-pulsed by the perceived Kazakh custom. “I’m not used to that, but that’s fine,” he mutters after a couple of kisses on the cheek.
The real skill of Baron Cohen as a comedian is his ability and sense to know when to amplify the antiquated foreignness of his character to see how patient some people will be with him, but dial down his antics when others are more comfortable revealing themselves. It’s the most high-wire improv comedy act we’ve ever seen, whether it’s keeping cool under the threat of expulsion or arrest, or chasing a large hairy man naked through a hotel convention.
Baron Cohen would reunite with his “Borat” director Larry Charles for two more character-based comedies, “Bruno” in 2009 and “The Dictator” in 2012, but they failed to reach the box office success and critical acclaim. “Borat” was a massive hit upon release in 2006, easily outpacing its $18 million budget during its opening weekend and tapping out with a worldwide gross of $261 million.
So yes, “Borat” stands the test of time as one of the great comedies of its era. The comedic character’s inflection is instantly recognizable to anyone, even those making a bad impression. With that, it’s time to retire the best lines of “Borat,” perhaps to be etched on a banner, raised to the rafters, and enshrined in a prestigious location like the National Comedy Hall of Fame in Jamestown, NY.
Fare thee well, quotes. May your legacy survive the litany of white men with terrible accents.
“My name-a Borat!”
The Weekend: There’s no real rhyme or reason to the types of movies released in early November; some become hits or award contenders, while others take a while to find their audiences.
John Carpenter earned a reputation for crafting suspenseful horror films like “Halloween” and “The Thing.” He adds another classic to his filmography with 1987’s “They Live,” featuring the motion picture debut of pro wrestling superstar “Rowdy” Roddy Piper. Another notable film that has completely different tone debuts this weekend in 1993, when Emma Thompson and Anthony Hopkins gained acclaimed as reserved British servants in “The Remains of the Day.”
While Steven Spielberg is no longer the sure-fire box office sensation he was in the 80s, the second half of his career has produced far more interesting pictures to his filmography. He cast Daniel Day-Lewis as the most respected American president in history in the final days of the Civil War in the somber but gripping 2012 drama, “Lincoln.”
And even though we’re still a few weeks away from Thanksgiving, two modern Christmas classics were released on the same weekend back in 2003. Will Ferrell scored his first solo movie hit in Jon Favreau’s “Elf,” while a cavalcade of British film stars made merry in the anthology comedy “Love Actually.” While both films are fondly remembered today, they ironically were beaten at the box office by another debut, “The Matrix Revolutions.” Still, it doesn’t hurt to get a head start on the holiday season, as we’ll see …
Next Week: “A Christmas Story”
Originally published at http://www.markciemcioch.com on November 7, 2019.