Friday, November 17, 2006

Was Borat Funny?

One of the signs that I'm getting older: more and more I find myself seeing merit in opinions I don't agree with.

Case in point. Here is a review of this Borat movie that totally trashes it, and yet I see a lot of its points.

Personally, I laughed my ass off at Borat. I enjoyed it so much I mailed my sister and told her to see it. She's just had a baby, so she doesn't get out of the house much anymore. I'll be home next week for the world's best holiday, and I thought we could leave the baby with my mom while my sister, her husband, and anyone else who wants to come went to see it. But I find myself thinking more and more maybe I don't really wanna go, and I didn't really know why. Then I read this review and well...he makes some good points.

  • Yakov Smirnoff for this generation. Right. And Yakov Smirnoff got old a long time ago. This is the same shit, really. The dumb foreigner from the enemy culture (back then it was the Soviets, today it's the Muslims) endlessly repeating the same stereotyped joke.

  • Lazy scapegoating. Again, right. Pulling out a bag of shit at the dinner table is funny on one level (FULL DISCLOSURE: I thought it was hillarious) - but it doesn't work as satire. Nor is it exactly racist of the people at the party to throw out their guest who invited the black prostitute to dinner. Both are funny because they're totally inappropriate - and that's always good for a laugh. But Cohen loves to explain his routine as having the higher social purpose of exposing us to our ugly, racist underside. I don't really see what's wrong with being offended by someone inviting a prostitute to crash your party. Funny, yes - but social commentary it ain't. And that goes for about 97% of the jokes in the film, actually.

  • Some of the jokes fall flat. In particular, the bit at the rodeo. I guess it was funny to have the old man laying it on the table about homos, but this scene has been mischaracterized in the media. Supposedly what happened is that the crowd cheered along with his bit about George Bush drinking the blood of every Iraqi woman and child - but actually a lot of booing had started by then. Those cheering were probably just cheering out of habit - because they'd liked the earlier statements about the "War of Terror" (and of course they can be forgiven for thinking this was just a foreigner's mangled English - they weren't cheering a War OF Terror), and it naturally catches you by surprise to find out you're being spoofed - doesn't register at first. Point being, the "victims" didn't exactly cooperate. And this happens time and again in the film. What we see more often than not are people being polite to the dumb foreigner. After awhile, you sort of get the feeling that the joke is on Cohen.

  • Inability to spoof the walking victims. The reviewer points out the Alan Keyes interview as a case in point. An honest-to-God homophobe, and all Cohen can get out of it is a stock gag about Borat not knowing that the man he went to the shower with was gay. Great. And this is repeated endlessly in the movie. The gun shop clerk who doesn't mind that Borat wants to shoot Jews, for example. Cohen just leaves. Or even the old man at the rodeo. Should've been a goldmine, but Borat just kinda nods. Unimpressive.

  • Hypocritical. I also agree with this reviewer in that it bothers me a bit that Cohen claims to be exposing anti-Semitism but doesn't himself seem to mind spreading negative stereotypes about Muslims. Of course, he would say that he's not spreading them but just holding up a mirror to them: part of the joke is supposed to be everyone's willingness to accept kazakhs as racist, misogynistic boors. At the end of the day, though, I just don't believe him. Meaning, I imagine he would be offended by a similar schtick with a Jewish character, and that's not cool.

  • Selective Victims. Most of the people being spoofed are old hat at being the butt. We're mostly picking on Rednecks and Christians, Jew-haters, Prim Southerners, American patriots, etc. When you think about it, Cohen doesn't do anything REALLY ballsy ... like pick on black people.

It's the last two points that really get to me. The golden rule of comedy is NO HIDDEN AGENDA. I've seen it time and time again - otherwise brilliant shows fall flat when THE POINT makes its miserable entrance. It's the main reason, really, why Beavis and Butthead was, is and ever shall be superior to SouthPark. SouthPark is just way too cautious. It pretends to be edgy, but it isn't at all, and that's because they're so busy covering their ass making sure that everyone gets the point that they're equal opportunity spoofers. But the world just doesn't work that way. Some things need to be spoofed more than others. Southerners, Christians, Rednecks, American Patriots - these are not among them. They have been endlessly spoofed as long as there's been Hollywood (and Europe). A good comedian is like a good masseuse. He finds the places where the pressure's built up and rubs them. That's what comedy is for. Rub the same spot for too long and it smarts. Good comedy is zen - it's aikido. You use the momentum of your object against it. Things get spoofed that set themselves up to be spoofed.

If there's a genuinely funny "edgy" comedian these days it's Sarah Silverman. She says what she wants. No need to pay three redneck college kids and liquor them up so you can knock down a straw man and call it comedy; no need to exaggerate the extent of anti-semitism in the world to prop up a papier-mache soapbox.

OK - end of rant. The movie was funny; I laughed my ass off. Go see it - it's good times. But the reviewer linked makes a lot of good points all the same. It is, at the end of the day, like SouthPark. Funny - yes. But missing that special whatever-it-is. It's good comedy, but it's nothing like great comedy. I think a lot of the hype around this movie is probably misplaced. I'm just as guilty here: I was taken in by it too.


At 7:02 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nice post, good points.

When I heard that the Kazakh government, and various other Kazakhi people, were offended and angry about Borat, I thought that they were missing the point - that it was really about Western ignorance.

Mostly, of course, I (like you) just expected it to be funny, which it was. I was a bit surprised by how many reasonable reactions there were alongside the 'exposed-western-ignorance' reactions (e.g., the poop-and-prostitute party throwers, the black dudes playing dice, lots of others), especially given that the filmmakers had an advantage - they could edit out anything unfunny or 'inappropriately' reasonable.

The point being that, in addition to all of the points made by the column you linked and discussed in this post, the movie kind of fails on its own terms by showing a fair amount of people being pretty reasonable given what they were confronted with.


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