MELIK KAYLAN/Wall Street Journal,
November 9, 2006
Sacha Baron Cohen's "Borat," now playing to packed theaters, brings to mind an old Oscar Wilde quip. Commenting on a Dickens tearjerker, he said, "You need a heart of stone not to laugh all through it." In the Borat movie, you need a heart of stone to keep on laughing. After sitting through an hour or more of incessant invitations to complicity over child-sex, incest, bestiality, coprophagy and the like by the leering composite of Jerry Lewis (torso) and Groucho Marx (brows/moustache), you long for an anti-Borat Hazmat suit. The theater falls silent from scatological exhaustion. But it's a complicated silence: The audience feels guilty for not laughing.Mr. Cohen has made it uncomfortable for anyone to declare publicly their dislike of Borat without sounding like the enemy of fun, or even worse, an overdignified Kazakh. Borat's antics always posit the outraged presence of irony-free onlookers, squares and straightmen out of the loop. You look at him, you look at them, you know who you must choose, however unfunny the joke. Their subverted dignity becomes the joke. Side with Borat or forever be identified on the side of holy rollers, rodeo grandpas, offended hotel clerks, and, above all, of oily-voweled apparatchiks from Kazakhstan protesting to the White House, in real life, that Borat is not a reporter from their country as he claims to be. The more they protest that Kazakh women are not all underage prostitutes who charge for incest, that they don't make cheese from their breast milk, the more must we laugh -- or be laughed at.
For those of us who loved Mr. Cohen's original Ali G character, Borat raises a dilemma. The humor in Ali G also presupposed an affronted foil, a pompous victim, as Ali G malapropped his way through interviews with clueless public figures who believed and tolerated his guise as a barbaric ghetto correspondent. So, what's the difference? Why Ali G. VERRRY NAICE, and Borat NOTTT? For one thing, Ali G's victims tended to be axe-grinders of one kind or another: politicians, ideologues, spokesmen, bureaucrats. They indulged him for their own ulterior uses. Their intentionality made them fair game, indeed became the joke, as it exposed their pretzelized political correctness. (Question: "If my Sheila practiced feminism on another woman, should I take her back?" Answer: "I think perhaps you misunderstand what feminism means.") In Borat's case, his victims tend to be folksy heartland types exposed chiefly through their unsuspecting hospitality.
It now seems clear that, hitherto, television's codes curbed Mr. Cohen's taste, both as Ali G and as Borat, for outrage bordering on vileness. The laxer motion-picture code has freed him to reveal his own fatal flaw. In the movie, Borat is welcomed to dinner in a well-intentioned American home as a foreign visitor anxious to learn Western manners. He excuses himself in mid-meal and returns with a little mesh sack full of human ordure. "What I do with this?" he asks. (I know what I would say, but the dismayed hostess is too polite and takes him back to the bathroom.) At this juncture, the theater falls silent. Which side are we on here? Ingenious postmodern commentators argue that this is where Mr. Cohen gets real, Brechtian even, and transcends comedy, forcing the audience profoundly to question itself. Perhaps so. But this is also where his bullying nihilism herniates into full view and stays in our faces. Each scene thereafter unveils either embarrassment, humiliation or hairy genitalia, unredeemed by laughter, inviting us to savor, and then to applaud, our own discomfort. No doubt that is what the Kazakhs would be doing, if only they could be as ironic as we are.
Mr. Kaylan is a writer in New York.