Sunday, November 12, 2006


I haven't always been a massive fan of comedy of embarrassment, especially when those being embarrassed (or indeed humiliated) are just ordinary, unknowing people caught in the act of getting on with their lives. (It was this streak of presumptive, rather callous arrogance that used to turn me off Dom Jolly's set-ups.)

For me at least, Sascha Baron Cohen's funniest gags have always been those directed at loftier targets. Still, I do draw the sympathy line somewhere, and I suppose evangelical Christians and frat boys fall on the wrong side of it!

If you've never seen this character before then you will find this film as painfully hilarious as billed. I couldn't help remembering Borat's earlier, funnier fact-finding trip to Cambridge University though. And the film also reminded me how this Borat, like the later Ali G, benefits rather too obviously from judicious editing − some of these encounters appeared tellingly brief. It doesn't really hold together as a comedic road movie, even if many of the individual skits are side-splitters.

I found myself constantly trying to spot the seams between fictionalised action and risqué reality TV, and wanting to see certain things that the makers apparently didn't want me to see. For example, how did the scene in the Antique shop end? And who was holding the camera on the frat boys' camper van and what did he or she look like?

I met a few milder incarnations of Borat when I visited the Soviet Union in the mid eighties. There was our guide to the Hermitage in Leningrad, Yuri, who wore a kind of light blue shell suit and kept urging us on through the seemingly endless corridors of stockpiled masterworks with an enthusiastic "Let's boogie". And then there was the ruddy-faced pair that literally fell into our compartment on the Moscow train. One held out the rather uninviting business end of his bottle of vodka, while the other reached out with a crazed look for the copy of the Economist that a friend had disgarded on the seat beside me: "Aaah sex magaziiiin".

Such was their anticipation of the cultural baggage that we decadent young westerners were likely to have stashed in our holdalls. In that sense I think Baron Cohen missed a chance to play for deeper laughs (and maybe even a bit of real pathos) by bulking up Quixotic / holy fool aspect of his Kazakh newsman, apparent for example when he mistakes a garage sale for a gypsy market.

We do chuckle when the joke is on Borat, but perhaps not quite so much as when it's on one of his local informers. It has been altogether easier to feel basic compassion for previous instances of laughter-inducing Johnny Foreigner, such as Manuel from Fawlty Towers and Peter Sellars's Indian in The Party. Indeed, when the action is feature length, scriptwriters nearly always try to make all their leading characters sympathetic, even if they are amoral serial killers like Tom Ripley. Borat on the other hand, remains a rather hateful idiot throughout. My only sympathy lay with Baron Cohen himself, unquestionably a very brave man. How did he avoid doing hard time (or even getting himself shot) at some point on this American odyssey?

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