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From Under A Rock: Borat

November 4, 2017 | Posted by Michael Ornelas
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From Under A Rock: Borat  


This week’s pick was one that I loved when it first came out, as I was 18 and in high school. Through the years, I’ve enjoyed it, but it’s still been 6 or 7 years since I last saw it. Does it still hold up now that I’m like…an adult?

You only get one first time, and for some people, it comes later than it does for others. This particular column is about documenting the first viewing of a “classic” movie or TV show determined at the discretion of Aaron Hubbard and Michael Ornelas in alternation.

Last week Aaron chose Them!. This week Michael takes Aaron out from under the proverbial rock to show him Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan.

Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan
Released: November 3rd, 2006
Directed by: Larry Charles
Written by: Sacha Baron Cohen, Peter Baynham, Anthony Hines, & Dan Mazer
Sacha Baron Cohen as Borat Sagdiyev
Ken Davitian as Azamat Bagatov
Pamela Anderson as herself

Michael Ornelas: I have so much love for the Borat character, and the way Sacha Baron Cohen explores cultural differences with him. It’s a hilarious, but somewhat-offensive idea (and there were a few spots that haven’t aged well at all, and were points that could have been omitted from the film entirely and wouldn’t have cost Borat any laughs). It hasn’t aged as well to me as I hoped it would, but it still has some merit.

Aaron Hubbard: Borat is made up of things I largely dislike, but done very well. This was always going to be a tough sell for me, but I can honestly say I enjoyed it more than I expected to.
Culture Shock
Michael: The entire point of Borat is to be a character who is shocked by how different other countries are from Kazakhstan, and Cohen plays that in very funny ways. I feel where it went slightly askew was when the spotlight was taken away from how ridiculous (and sometimes horrible) our own culture can be, and decided to invent odd things about Kazakh culture that don’t even actually really exist (or if they do, they are highly exaggerated, I’m sure). It manages to be…mean? There’s so much comedy to be mined from an honest portrayal of Kazakh culture shock that it’s somewhat lazy to make up anti semitic and homophobic jokes (which played much better in 2006) for “shock” comedy. I enjoyed moments like needing “not” jokes explained to him or thinking a literal “pussy magnet” would come with a car than “The Running of the Jew” (although yes, I understand it was just keeping with the character he had established on Da Ali G Show).

Aaron: Cohen and company were certainly broad in who they offended (getting multiple lawsuits in the process.) I’ve always been of the opinion that I’m not suited for comedy because I am, generally speaking, more sensitive to things that people think are funny. Which I admit is my own baggage. But I do think Cohen’s talents exceed the material he works with here, and scenes like the “town rapist” or needing feminism explained to him just aren’t going to generate laughs from me. That said… I really enjoyed the latter parts of the film where it focused more on roasting the U.S.

Michael: Showing the inner workings of the frat guys’ bus or the church were borderline insane, and they weren’t with actors. Borat excels when he’s weird, but the people he’s talking to are weirder/worse than he is. His innocent demeanor is his biggest comedic charm.
Sacha Baron Cohen is Spectacular
Aaron: So while I was a bit cold on this film, I think I should say something nice about it. Because it was far from awful. The best compliment I can pay is to Sacha Baron Cohen. While some of his films don’t resonate with me, I’ve never seen him give a bad performance. He has great timing, a remarkable ability to keep a straight face, and is very funny off the cuff. This film certainly showcases all of that.

Michael: I’d argue it’s him at his best. Bruno was a great character on his show, but the movie was pretty bad. Ali G is a fun character but is so much a parody of the type he’s portraying, that there’s a disconnect with reality that prevents him from really landing with me. Borat not only highlights his commitment to staying in character as an actor, but also how far he’s willing to go to entertain as a creative mind behind it. The fact that he manages to get Pamela Anderson completely in a sack was super ambitious and hilarious, even if she was in on it (because the rest of the movie had been built so well as a voyeuristic view into “real” events). He was firing on all cylinders with every hat he had to wear (and when he had to wear nothing at all).

Aaron: I can’t comment on his show, but I’ve seen him in bit roles in other movies since then. He’s very talented and unique to himself. While the movie was a mixed bag for me I really enjoyed his performance and dedication in scenes that most people could not fake. The elevator at the hotel and the etiquette lessons scenes are quite hilarious to me.
Scripting vs. Improvising
Michael: This movie was portrayed as entirely improvised, but obviously there was an overlying story and scripting, particularly between Borat and Azamat. This film came out in 2006, which was toward the beginning of seemingly every comedy being largely improvised for large portions, but in a different way. I feel like this film used improv the way it’s supposed to be used: in scenes where even the actors didn’t know exactly how it would turn out. But my favorite moments were still the ones that were preconceived, which speaks to the power of thinking comedy out beforehand and figuring out why it’s funny and how it’ll work best. Most of what we see now in the major Hollywood comedy genre is Will Ferrell or Seth Rogen and their buddies riffing and filling up half the runtime with their “who can top who?” joke runs. And they’re funny guys who get comedy, but it detracts from the movie’s pace. Borat seems to understand the importance of only taking the best improvised moments and at least manages to succeed on maintaining forward momentum.

Aaron: I have to admit I don’t know how I feel about how a lot of the scenes were filmed. There’s something grossly manipulative about making people sign waivers and never telling them what was going on, even after the fact. It’s hard to argue with the hilarious results, but reading about lawsuit after lawsuit makes me wonder how authentic this really had to be.

Michael: As a guilty fan of Jackass movies and doing a bit of my own public pranking for YouTube, I appreciate messing with people for comedy as long as it’s harmless. If someone says something that they look bad for, that’s on them (in the case of the frat guys or the man at the rodeo). But there are still instances in this film where I feel sorry for those who are being pranked, and the movie crosses some lines. It doesn’t ruin the experience for me but it still makes me uneasy from time to time. I still prefer scripted comedy because it’s safer and crisper in delivery.

Aaron: Borat was better than I expected but ultimately not for me. That can be attributed to taste, or perhaps the film just hasn’t aged. Whatever the case, I’m probably not going to watch this again.


Michael: This movie used to be an A from me, but my tastes have moved on. Cohen IS Borat, and that’s commendable, as he provides some genuinely genius comedic moments. But it hasn’t aged as well as I’d hoped, and so it just gets a slightly above average rating from me.


Aaron: Bummer. But I feel less guilty about being lukewarm to this pick in retrospect.

Michael: I feel more guilty for being lukewarm to it now…

Do you agree with Michael and Aaron’s rating?

Next week:

Aaron: So next week’s pick is a South Korean film that was one of my favorite films of last year.
Michael: I honestly thought this was The Handmaid’s Tale as it sat on our list, and now that you said it’s Korean, I have no clue what to expect.

Aaron: And that is going to be the case the entire time you watch this movie.

Which recent foreign movies have flown under the radar?

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Aaron Has Another Column!
Inconceivable! One of my all time favorite films is the subject of Dissecting the Classics this week; The Princess Bride.

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The final score: review Average
The 411
We both like some of what Borat has to offer, mostly because we both admire Sacha Baron Cohen's immeasurable comedic talent. But it's a mixed bag for us, not aging well for Michael and being a bit tough for Aaron to get into. We recommend it and suspect other people may enjoy it more than we did.