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A movie for every day of the year – a good one

13 October

Sacha Baron Cohen born, 1971

On this day in 1971, Sacha Noam Baron Cohen was born in London, England. While studying history at Christ’s College, Cambridge, Baron Cohen started to appear on stage in productions by the university’s Amateur Dramatic Club, whose past members include the actors Rachel Weisz and Ian McKellen and the director Richard Eyre. After leaving university, Baron Cohen worked as a model and as a presenter on local TV stations, before developing a character called Kristo, a gormless TV reporter (and forerunner of Borat). By 2002 he had developed the Super Greg character, a useless DJ with appalling scratching skills and a terrifying unibrow, for a Lee Jeans campaign – the campaign never ran, but the website went viral. In the meantime Baron Cohen had created Ali G, his breakthrough character, a dim-witted, libidinous, supposed ghetto wannabe from a nice suburban town whose shtick was to interview celebrities and politicians in character. After exhausting the Ali G character’s possibilities, Baron Cohen retired him, letting his fictional Kazakh journalist, Borat, take up the reins. And in turn letting his fictional Austrian fashion hound, Bruno, take over from Borat.

Borat (2006, dir: Larry Charles)

Subtitled: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, this comedy is the high water mark (so far) of Sacha Baron Cohen’s output. Following the supposed Kazakh journalist’s trek across America in search of Pamela Anderson, it’s a loosely strung together series of interviews/sketches (some are probably for real, some are not) which are as smart as Borat is dumb, subjecting Americans and their customs to close scrutiny. By and large Americans come out of it well – on this showing they’re a warm and accepting bunch who on the whole smile uneasily at Borat’s anti-semitism, his homophobia, his misogyny, not because they agree with him and don’t want to show it, but because they don’t but are too well mannered to say anything. As a mockumentary Borat is half-hearted but as a comedy it’s full throated. Baron Cohen understands exactly where the hornet’s nest of offence lies and sets about poking it with a stick. But if the insults against Jews are breathtaking (Baron Cohen is Jewish; his university thesis was on the Jewish role in the US civil rights movement), and the offences against manners squirm-inducing, the attitudes that Borat reveals in some (the gunstore owner who proffers both a 9mm and 45mm when asked for the best gun to kill Jews being a highlight) are jaw-dropping. But all this is trumped by Baron Cohen’s sheer fearlessness – the rodeo scene, once glimpsed never forgotten, when he pulls a majestic bait-and-switch on an entire tentful of (initially whooping, eventually baying) rednecks is bravery on an epic scale.

Why Watch?

  • Borat wrestling naked with his producer Azamat (Ken Davitian)
  • The live chickens on the New York subway
  • The idea the someone could believe Pamela Anderson is a virgin
  • Because it’s rated R “for pervasive strong crude and sexual content including graphic nudity and language”

Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan – at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2013

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