In the Middle Ages, sometimes the only person in a royal court who could speak the plain, blunt truth was the court jester. Able to couch his criticism in jokes, the jester could say things that no one else in the court could, pointing out the foibles of the court in a manner that would otherwise have been unhealthy for anyone else to attempt.
If there is a modern analogue for the court jester it could very well be British comic Sacha Baron Cohen, whose new film Borat: Cultural Learnings On America For Make Benefit Glorious Nation Of Kazakhstan uses comedy to shine a light on some rather ugly truths about ourselves that we’d rather not admit. The naive and sexist Borat is one of three characters created by Cohen for British television with which he would confront the famous and not-so-famous in interview situations with questions that range from inappropriate to down-right bizarre, the results uncomfortable to hilarious.
And now, Borat has made the leap to the big screen in a film that is as near a piece of subversive comic genius as has been seen in years. While on a trip to the United States to find ways to bring his home country into the 21st century, Kazakhstani reporter Borat Sagdiyev abandons his assignment to cross the country in a dilapidated ice cream truck to meet and hopefully marry Pamela Anderson. Along the way he interviews a rather humorless humor coach, sings the Kazakhstani National anthem at a rodeo and manages to whip a Pentecostal gathering into a prayerful frenzy.
Although the film’s plot is a mix of the standard fish-out-of-water and road movie tropes, it remains only the flimsiest of excuses for Borat’s Candid Camera-like encounters with Americans. But that’s not a drawback in this case. The meat of the movie is what Cohen manages to get his interview subjects to reveal about themselves. With just a precisely worded phrase that only sounds like a malapropism on its surface, Cohen’s Borat manages to get his on camera subjects to open up and expose themselves in ways that they might not otherwise do. The result is the realization that as much as we may believe we have become a society that has moved away from bigotry, intolerance and ignorance, it still lurks, weakened perhaps, but always looking for a way to peek out. But does knowing the film’s conceit spoil one’s enjoyment? Not in the least. If anything, there’s a certain amount of perverse glee in the fact that you’re watching people let loose with comments that they might not ordinarily make in polite conversation.
Cohen deserves a lot of recognition not only for his sharp satirical scalpel but for his instincts as an actor, knowing when to play an unscripted moment with a sense of emotional honesty. By shading Borat with some heart, Cohen makes his creation more character than caricature and helps give the film the added dimension of an unexpected but welcome emotional arc that has a surprising payoff in the end.
To discuss more about the film is to rob it of some of its most powerful punches, if that hasn’t been done so already. It’s better to just sit down in a darkened theater and allow Borat to take you along on a trip of discovery about ourselves.